Orwell’s 1984 : US shreds history


Richard Moore


February 21, 2006

U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review


WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 - In a seven-year-old secret program at
the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been
removing from public access thousands of historical
documents that were available for years, including some
already published by the State Department and others
photocopied years ago by private historians.

The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000
previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the
Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected
to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information
after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill
Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took
office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks,
according to archives records.

But because the reclassification program is itself shrouded
in secrecy - governed by a still-classified memorandum that
prohibits the National Archives even from saying which
agencies are involved - it continued virtually without
outside notice until December. That was when an intelligence
historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents
he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the
archives' open shelves.

Mr. Aid was struck by what seemed to him the innocuous
contents of the documents - mostly decades-old State
Department reports from the Korean War and the early cold
war. He found that eight reclassified documents had been
previously published in the State Department's history
series, "Foreign Relations of the United States."

"The stuff they pulled should never have been removed," he
said. "Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright

After Mr. Aid and other historians complained, the archives'
Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees
government classification, began an audit of the
reclassification program, said J. William Leonard, director
of the office.

Mr. Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16
withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be

"If those sample records were removed because somebody
thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed,"
Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the

If Mr. Leonard finds that documents are being wrongly
reclassified, his office could not unilaterally release
them. But as the chief adviser to the White House on
classification, he could urge a reversal or a revision of
the reclassification program.

A group of historians, including representatives of the
National Coalition for History and the Society of Historians
of American Foreign Relations, wrote to Mr. Leonard on
Friday to express concern about the reclassification
program, which they believe has blocked access to some
material at the presidential libraries as well as at the

Among the 50 withdrawn documents that Mr. Aid found in his
own files is a 1948 memorandum on a C.I.A. scheme to float
balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop
propaganda leaflets. It was reclassified in 2001 even though
it had been published by the State Department in 1996.

Another historian, William Burr, found a dozen documents he
had copied years ago whose reclassification he considers
"silly," including a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan,
then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English
translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's
nuclear weapons program.

Under existing guidelines, government documents are supposed
to be declassified after 25 years unless there is particular
reason to keep them secret. While some of the choices made
by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling,
others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover
up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago.

One reclassified document in Mr. Aid's files, for instance,
gives the C.I.A.'s assessment on Oct. 12, 1950, that Chinese
intervention in the Korean War was "not probable in 1950."
Just two weeks later, on Oct. 27, some 300,000 Chinese
troops crossed into Korea.

Mr. Aid said he believed that because of the
reclassification program, some of the contents of his 22
file cabinets might technically place him in violation of
the Espionage Act, a circumstance that could be shared by
scores of other historians. But no effort has been made to
retrieve copies of reclassified documents, and it is not
clear how they all could even be located.

"It doesn't make sense to create a category of documents
that are classified but that everyone already has," said
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security
Archive, a research group at George Washington University.
"These documents were on open shelves for years."

The group plans to post Mr. Aid's reclassified documents and
his account of the secret program on its Web site,
www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv, on Tuesday.

The program's critics do not question the notion that
wrongly declassified material should be withdrawn. Mr. Aid
said he had been dismayed to see "scary" documents in open
files at the National Archives, including detailed
instructions on the use of high explosives.

But the historians say the program is removing material that
can do no conceivable harm to national security. They say it
is part of a marked trend toward greater secrecy under the
Bush administration, which has increased the pace of
classifying documents, slowed declassification and
discouraged the release of some material under the Freedom
of Information Act.

Experts on government secrecy believe the C.I.A. and other
spy agencies, not the White House, are the driving force
behind the reclassification program.

"I think it's driven by the individual agencies, which have
bureaucratic sensitivities to protect," said Steven
Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, editor
of the online weekly Secrecy News. "But it was clearly
encouraged by the administration's overall embrace of

National Archives officials said the program had revoked
access to 9,500 documents, more than 8,000 of them since
President Bush took office. About 30 reviewers - employees
and contractors of the intelligence and defense agencies -
are at work each weekday at the archives complex in College
Park, Md., the officials said.

Archives officials could not provide a cost for the program
but said it was certainly in the millions of dollars,
including more than $1 million to build and equip a secure
room where the reviewers work.

Michael J. Kurtz, assistant archivist for record services,
said the National Archives sought to expand public access to
documents whenever possible but had no power over the
reclassifications. "The decisions agencies make are those
agencies' decisions," Mr. Kurtz said.

Though the National Archives are not allowed to reveal which
agencies are involved in the reclassification, one archivist
said on condition of anonymity that the C.I.A. and the
Defense Intelligence Agency were major participants.

A spokesman for the C.I.A., Paul Gimigliano, said that the
agency had released 26 million pages of documents to the
National Archives since 1998 and that it was "committed to
the highest quality process" for deciding what should be

"Though the process typically works well, there will always
be the anomaly, given the tremendous amount of material and
multiple players involved," Mr. Gimigliano said.

A spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency said he was
unable to comment on whether his agency was involved in the

Anna K. Nelson, a foreign policy historian at American
University, said she and other researchers had been puzzled
in recent years by the number of documents pulled from the
archives with little explanation.

"I think this is a travesty," said Dr. Nelson, who said she
believed that some reclassified material was in her files.
"I think the public is being deprived of what history is
really about: facts."

The document removals have not been reported to the
Information Security Oversight Office, as the law has
required for formal reclassifications since 2003.

The explanation, said Mr. Leonard, the head of the office,
is a bureaucratic quirk. The intelligence agencies take the
position that the reclassified documents were never properly
declassified, even though they were reviewed, stamped
"declassified," freely given to researchers and even
published, he said.

Thus, the agencies argue, the documents remain classified -
and pulling them from public access is not really

Mr. Leonard said he believed that while that logic might
seem strained, the agencies were technically correct. But he
said the complaints about the secret program, which prompted
his decision to conduct an audit, showed that the
government's system for deciding what should be secret is
deeply flawed.

"This is not a very efficient way of doing business," Mr.
Leonard said. "There's got to be a better way."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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