More than 1 million pages of historical government documents — a stack taller than the U.S. Capitol — have been removed from public view since the September 2001 terror attacks, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. Some of the papers are more than a century old.
In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review because the government’s central record-keeping agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, did not have time for a more thorough audit.
“We just felt we couldn’t take the time and didn’t always have the expertise,” said Steve Tilley, who oversaw the program. Archives officials are still screening records, but the number of files pulled recently has declined dramatically, he said.
The records administration began removing materials under its “records of concern” program, launched in November 2001 after the Justice Department instructed agencies to be more guarded in releasing government papers. The agency has removed about 1.1 million pages, according to partially redacted monthly progress reports reviewed by the AP. The reports were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The pulled records include the presumably dangerous, such as nearly half an enormous database from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with information about all federal facilities. But they also include the presumably useless, such as part of a collection about the Lower Colorado River Authority that includes 114-year-old papers.
About 80 cubic feet of naval facility plans and blueprints — on microfilm, about 200,000 pages — were withdrawn since the agency said it didn’t have time to go through each individual document.
In all, archivists identified as many as 625 million pages that could have been affected under the security program. In their haste to remove potentially harmful documents from view, archives officials acknowledged many records were withdrawn that should be available.
The public can still request to see parts of withdrawn documents under the Freedom of Information Act and may in some cases be allowed to see whole files that were removed.
Earlier Pentagon, CIA controversy
The archives program comes less than one year after the records administration came under fire for allowing public documents to be reclassified as secret under a separate program.
After the September 2001 attacks, the records administration signed a secret deal with the Pentagon and CIA to review and permit the removal of tens of thousands of pages from public view that intelligence officials believed had been declassified too hastily.
In the aftermath of disclosures about that program, archives officials promised they would not enter into any more secret agreements with federal agencies, would publicize withdrawals and would establish procedures for reclassifying documents. A subsequent audit of the disputed program found one of every three sampled documents should not have been reclassified.
The newer program, however, has been operated wholly by archives officials, and its scope apparently dwarfs the removal of CIA and Pentagon records. In a memo to employees, then-Archivist of the United States John Carlin said the records of concern program would “reduce the risk of providing access to materials that might support terrorists.”
A later memo explained that “relatively current, accurate and detailed information on a structure, organization or facility that is crucial to protecting national defense, the country’s infrastructure, symbolic monuments and personal identity are records of concern.”
The archives initially targeted six categories of documents for review, but the list was expanded to include 10 categories in early 2002:
- Plans, photos or maps of government facilities or other sensitive infrastructure.
- Emergency action, civil defense and continuity of government information.
- Nuclear technology materials.
- Weapons technology information, including biological and chemical agents.
- Presidential protection records.
- Materials relating to intelligence gathering and studies.
- Studies on terrorism and counterterrorism.
- Information on natural resources, such as oil, uranium and water.
- Material that could be potentially useful to terrorists.
- Materials relating to the Middle East with information on potentially current topics.
The director of an online coalition for freedom of information issues, Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org, urged officials to create a public registry of withdrawn documents. She said officials should work toward releasing more than 400 million pages of backlogged files rather than removing smaller numbers of papers.
“This is a questionable use of tax dollars,” McDermott said.
Other researchers said the project, while well-intentioned, reinforces a culture of secrecy that became more pronounced after the September 2001 terror attacks.
“You want government to be vigilant when it comes to security, but you also want them to behave responsibly,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the government secrecy project for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. “You can’t have a situation where secrecy becomes the default mode.”
Many of the removed records might be useful to terrorists, according to the AP’s review. Archivists removed records from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Preventive Medicine Division, which studied biological weapons created between 1941 and 1947.
Other records withdrawn don’t appear to be useful to terrorists. Archivists removed information from a 1960 Bureau of Indian Affairs report on enrollments in the Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida tribes because it included Social Security numbers, which could be used for identity theft.
A 1960 map of the Melton Hill Reservoir in east Tennessee — now perhaps best-known as a spring training site for collegiate rowing teams around the eastern United States — was removed from view, as were 1967 architectural drawings for the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
In e-mails and memos obtained by the AP, archives employees made it clear they were trying to minimize the number and scope of removals. In an internal e-mail, the No. 2 archives official expressed satisfaction at finding fewer and fewer papers that should be removed. “All quiet on records of concern front,” wrote Lewis Bellardo. “Just the way we like it.”
Archives officials generally have received passing marks from secrecy experts who have been aware of the program, said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a George Washington University-based research institute. But Blanton also said the effort appears to be a case of misplaced priorities.
“Government’s first instinct is to hide vulnerabilities, not to fix them,” said Blanton. “And that doesn’t make us safer.”