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secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.Further, the folks pulling the documents aren't bothering to tell the oversight office:
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was when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.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 ridiculous."
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 Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.
The document removals have not been reported to the Information Security Oversight Office, as the law has required for formal reclassifications since 2003.There's a lot more information available at the website of the National Security Archive (http://www.nsarchive.org, which redirects you to http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/), a project at George Washington University not related to the National Archives or the National Security Agency.
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 reclassification.
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.