The Air Force's penchant for secrecy has apparently driven government archivists to use deception in retrieving and reclassifying 30-year-old records involving U.S. and Israeli intelligence activities.
The documents in question include details about the sabotage and explosion of a U.S. Air Force C47 at Lod airport outside Tel Aviv in May, 1953.
These and other records from the U.S. air attache's office in Tel Aviv from 1950 to 1953 were declassified by officials of the National Archives and turned over last December to researcher-author Stephen S. Green of Montpelier, Vt.
Green, who is writing a history of the hidden tensions and adversary relationships between the United States and Israel, said the records contained evidence that the air attache's C47 flight on the day in question was carried out to photograph Israeli military installations in a proscribed area of northern Israel.
According to Green, the records also suggested that Israeli authorities blew the plane up on its return from the reconnaissance mission.
The head of the archives' Records Declassification Division, Edwin A. Thompson, telephoned Green in early February and asked him to send the 47-page packet back.
"He said, 'We merely want to have a record of what it was you saw and copied,' " Green related. "He apologized for poor records-keeping at the declassification branch."
At Green's request, Thompson followed up with a letter assuring him that "our review of these pages will be swiftly completed and the reproductions will be immediately returned."
What Green got back instead, a month later, was a note saying that the Air Force had decided 11 pages "must remain classified" in their entirety. The rest was returned but seven pages came back with portions snipped out.
Thompson offered his apologies in a March 10 cover letter. "Personally, I feel especially sad that I misled you," he wrote Green.
Thompson told a reporter that there was was "nothing I could do" because the instructions under which he was operating were so "explicit." He said the Air Force demanded retrieval of the papers after Green had submitted a copy of one of them along with a Freedom of Information request to the Air Force, seeking more details about the C47's code-numbered mission.
The Air Force "alerted us to the fact that Green has what appeared to be still a classified item," Thompson said. "It was not marked, 'Declassified.' So we had not followed our own procedures."
ACLU lawyer Mark Lynch, who is representing Green, said he is thinking of suing for fraud and misrepresentation unless the papers--for which Green paid 20 cents a page--are returned to him intact.
Green, meanwhile, is scolding himself because, he said, he took Thompson at his word that the documents would be returned and didn't make any copies. "I was naive," Green said.
By now, Thompson told a reporter in unhappy tones, the incident "has escalated beyond anything I can do or any comment I can make." In any case, the archivist said, officials of the Executive Branch's information oversight security office are checking into it. As a result of that, Thompson said, "I would rather hope that the Air Force is more forthcoming."