Feds secretly reclassify data
Thousands of documents have been taken off the shelves but left on the Internet
- By Aliya Sternstein
- Feb 27, 2006
Thousands of declassified documents have been secretly reclassified and removed from the shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration’s research facility in Maryland, including some documents that are still publicly available on the Internet. But the government does not plan to take the classified material off-line.
Although many people are concerned that the government may have removed harmless but useful historical information, little fuss has developed about how reclassification controls apply to the Web, some experts say. That is surprising because NARA’s flagship project is the Electronic Records Archives, the first effort to save government records regardless of format and make them accessible on future hardware and software.
The declassified documents in question are at least 25 years old, meaning they are mostly paper records. Under an executive order issued by former President Clinton, agencies must declassify or exempt all documents created at least 25 years ago that contain national security information.
The discovery of the secret program was made by Matthew Aid, a historian specializing in intelligence who said he could no longer find many of the documents that he had copied years ago from NARA’s shelves.
Aid announced last week that he and other researchers have taken steps to stop the reclassification program.
For the past seven years, at least six intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Defense and Justice departments, have been secretly revoking access to 9,500 historical documents. After concerned researchers confronted NARA a few weeks ago, agency officials began an audit of the program.
Last week, NARA officials would only confirm that 9,500 documents have been reclassified by their originating agencies whose officials believed the classified information had been improperly or inadvertently released.
But NARA will not modify documents online, said J. William Leonard, director of NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office. “It is not NARA’s role, nor would we even advocate the removal of such information from the Web,” he said.
The office will release a report in the next two months about restoring the maximum amount of information to public view and defining procedures to ensure that future classification efforts are appropriate.
Of the 15 examples of reclassified documents posted on the National Security Archive’s Web site, eight were published in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series or the microfiche supplements to that series.
The Government Printing Office, which is responsible for informing the public about government work, is not part of the reclassification program, GPO officials said. The agencies have not told GPO to remove material from the federal library system or GPO Access, a Web portal with reams of documents published by all three branches of government.
Open-government advocate Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the lessons learned would more likely govern how agencies and NARA should go about reclassifying paper, not electronic, records.
“It may be that there’s no serious online impact at all,” he said. “At the moment, it looks like there was some enormous overreaction that led to the absurd result of removing published documents from the archives.”