Video: Public documents reclassified

By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/24/2006 7:51:56 PM ET 2006-02-25T00:51:56

The presence of American GIs and other U.N. troops in Korea in 1950 was well documented on film and in textbooks. But under a secret government program, memos on that war are among 9,500 documents now virtually erased from the National Archives.

"This is just secrecy for secrecy's sake," says Scott Aftergood, a national security expert with the Federation of American Scientists.

Among the other items reclassified:

  • State Department documents on whether the Chinese would invade Korea in 1950.
  • President Truman's plan to fire Gen. MacArthur.
  • And a CIA plot to drop propaganda behind the Iron Curtain from hot air balloons.

All the memos were declassified in 1976, but are now stamped secret.

"This, essentially, retroactively withdraws those records from view and makes government unaccountable," says Scott Armstrong, a national security expert.

So why do this now? Critics say the CIA and other spy agencies are trying to hide decades of their own bad calls. The process started seven years ago, they say, but increased dramatically under President Bush, especially after 9/11.

"It's a form of censorship in its crudest and rudest form," says Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian.

The administration says it's not trying to hide official mistakes.

"We always try to maintain a balance between being open but trying to protect national security," says State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli.

"The CIA's estimate of what China might do during the Korean War has to be withdrawn from public access today?" asks Aftergood. "Who are they kidding?"

Critics also suggest some of this may be deliberate — to change history.

Just as The New York Times was about to report that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on domestic calls and e-mails, the government suddenly withdrew a 1952 memo from the public files on how to structure the NSA.

"History vanishes with the substitution of that one page," says Armstrong.

Without the documents, history ends up being rewritten, or even vanishes.

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