State Department cables and documents about Central America were censored in different ways for different people who requested them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), according to a group organizing some of the papers.
Ruth Chojnacki, director of the Central America Papers Project, said the group's goal is to computer-organize tens of thousands of papers in private hands to make them available to journalists, libraries and historians for analysis of the U.S. role in the region.
She said another purpose of the project is to allow lawyers litigating for release of classified information to analyze the deletions the State Department makes and the exemptions it claims from FOIA regulations.
"Sometimes it seems as arbitrary as the difference from one classifier to the next," she said. "Some of it is bizarre." Chojnacki said different requests sometimes elicited different versions of the same document.
In cables from the field, she said, "the embassy is frequently pleading for action from the State Department . . . saying why aren't you doing something about this, we've told you and told you."
No one at the State Department keeps track of documents released, Chojnacki said. "When I went down there, they showed me boxes of stuff they'd Xeroxed for release and just dumped there, totally unorganized," she said.
Funded by a $20,000 grant from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation of Chicago and organized by the Fund for Free Expression, a nonprofit liberal research group in New York, the project hopes eventually to include more than 10,000 documents in its data base, Chojnacki said. About 1,000 documents have been coded and the project is short of funds, she said.
The project began with more than 1,000 documents from former New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner, who obtained them under the FOIA in connection with his book, "Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador," and who said in a speech that the papers should be organized for in-depth study by others. Rep. Jim Moody (D-Wis.) heard the speech and organized the project, said Chojnacki, a former Moody aide.
"I see this project as being especially important now, under this administration, because of its poor record of accessibility and reliability of information," Moody said. "We need stronger tools to counter the pablum we're given."