Previously public intelligence documents, some more than 50 years old, have been sealed under a secret agreement between the National Archives and three federal agencies, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The 2002 agreement, requested three years ago by The Associated Press and released this week, shows archivists were concerned about reclassifying previously available documents — many of them more than 50 years old — but nonetheless agreed to keep mum.
“It is in the interest of both (unnamed agency) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been available publicly from the open shelves for extended periods of time,” the agreement said.
The agreement was originally stamped “secret.” The National Archives and Records Administration provided a redacted copy of the agreement to AP under FOIA this week and then posted the document on its Web site.
The agreement said the archives “will not acknowledge the role of (redacted) AFDO in the review of these documents or the withholding of any documents determined to need continued protection from unauthorized disclosure.” AFDO stands for Air Force Declassification Office.
“NARA will not disclose the true reason for the presence of AFDO (redacted) personnel at the Archives, to include disclosure to persons within NARA who do not have a validated need-to-know,” the agreement added.
National Archivist Allen Weinstein applauded the release of the agreement and said an internal agency review on how best to handle reclassification requests should be completed by the end of this month.
“It is an important first step in finding the balance between continuing to protect national security and protecting the right to know by the American public,” Weinstein said.
Intelligence officials began reviewing documents for reclassification in 1999, The New York Times reported earlier this year.
The number of documents that have been removed from public view, however, has soared since President Bush took office in 2001 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred.
An estimated 55,000 pages within 10,000 documents have been removed from public view, ranging from information about 1948 anti-American riots in Colombia to a 1962 telegram containing a translation of a Belgrade news article about China’s nuclear capabilities.
Weinstein announced a moratorium on the reclassification last month so his information security oversight office can audit the process.
Concerns over openness
Historians expressed concern about the secrecy in the reclassification agreement.
“This whole activity was effectively concealed,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ government secrecy project. “It’s baffling. It’s basically a covert action taking place at the National Archives.”
Aftergood also said he found it odd that the agreement named two of the agencies involved in the reclassification program — the U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency — but redacted the name of a third, arguing it would compromise national security, reveal internal government deliberations and violate statutes against disclosure of specific information.
In congressional testimony last month, a historian said the third agency was the Defense Intelligence Agency, but archivists refused to address his assertions.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, a private governmental research group in Washington, said it was unusual that archivists would be involved in hiding valuable history.
“It seems odd that they would be so willing to accept this,” she said. “But NARA was completely complicit in trying to cover it up.”
William Leonard, head of the archive’s information security oversight office, told lawmakers last month that protecting agency secrets while providing information to the public requires delicate balancing.
“When information is improperly declassified, or is not classified in the first place although clearly warranted, our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations can be subject to potential harm,” Leonard said.
“Conversely, too much classification ... or inappropriate reclassification, unnecessarily obstructs effective information sharing and impedes an informed citizenry, the hallmark of our democratic form of government.”