How to Bury a Secret: Turn It Into Paperwork

Unsealed but mostly unseen: Archivist Neil Carmichael and some of the government's hundreds of millions of former secrets.
Unsealed but mostly unseen: Archivist Neil Carmichael and some of the government's hundreds of millions of former secrets. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, something profound happened in the government secrecy system. With little fanfare, the paradigm of secrecy shifted.

The days when secrets would be secret forever officially ended that night. Some 700 million pages of secret documents became unsecret. No longer were they classified. They became . . . public. Imagine it: Some 400 million formerly classified pages at the National Archives, another 270 million at the FBI, 30 million elsewhere, all emerging into the sunshine of open government, squinting and pale, like naked mole rats.

This would seem a victory for freedom of information, just as President Bill Clinton envisioned when he signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 (affirmed by President Bush in 2003), which mandated that 25-year-old documents be automatically declassified unless exempted for national security or other reasons.

But it is not so simple. There is a dirty little secret about these secrets: They remain secreted away. You still can't rush down to the National Archives to check them out. In fact, it could be years before these public documents can be viewed by the public.

Fifty archivists can process 40 million pages in a year, but now they are facing 400 million. The backlog, inside the National Archives II facility in College Park, measures 160,000 cubic feet inside a massive classified vault with special lighting and climate controls to preserve old paper. Row upon row of electronically operated steel shelves, all a pale gray, hold hundreds of thousands of document boxes buffered to fight destructive acidity. The place feels like the set of a science fiction movie, all pristine and orderly and hushed.

Inside the boxes are documents that have to be scrutinized and processed according to the classification instructions written on them by staffers in any one of several agencies, which leaves archivists with a task not unlike deciphering a 25-year-old crime scene.

"It's like 'CSI,' only it's in records," says Neil Carmichael, the supervisory archivist. "You never know what you're going to get."

The work, says Jeanne Schauble, is "esoteric," all about arcane rules and layers of document review. She holds the rather Orwellian title of director of the Initial Processing and Declassification Division at the National Archives, which means she leads the beleaguered team of archivists faced with the task of making open government real.

"The United States has the most open government in the world," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, "but it also has the most secretive government in the world, if you measure it by the production of new secrets."

And so, among the 400 million pages of documents awaiting their release are road maps to American history in the 1950s and 1960s: old mob investigations and the chase after Communist activists; kidnappings and bank robberies; diplomatic doings no longer deemed sensitive. But frankly, no one really knows what's there -- except the officials who originally classified them.

Not only are archivists overwhelmed by the number of documents that have arrived at the facility; they also face the strange mumbo jumbo of competing declassification instructions from various agencies. (Some agencies have given archivists with the appropriate security clearances the authority to make declassification decisions.)

When they open a box containing these old records, the archivists see a series of papers with white tabs affixed bearing numbers, dates, letters, slashes and circles that are supposed to tell them how to proceed. Each agency has a different dialect, a different set of codes for communicating its wishes to the National Archives. One agency might use an "R" to mean release, while another agency might use an "R" to mean retain.

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