Secret program reclassifies documents

Thousands of declassified pages of public records have been reclassified and removed from the shelves of the National Archives and Records Administration's research facility in Maryland, including some documents for which electronic versions remain online.

The discovery of the secret program was made by Matthew Aid, a researcher who said he could no longer find on the shelves many of the documents that he had copied years ago.

Open government and historian groups, including the National Security Archive, a research institute at George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified documents, announced they have taken steps to stop the reclassification program. The government does not have the right to take back information it has already published, said officials at the National Security Archive, which posted information about the secret program on its Web site.

Historians say such reclassification demonstrates growing secrecy under the Bush administration and unreasonable classification decisions.

For the past seven years, at least six intelligence agencies have been secretly reclassifying historical documents, according to security archive officials. They said the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense and Justice departments acted under the belief that the declassified documents were improperly or inadvertently released.

The State Department has been the hardest hit by the seizure of documents. Of the 15 examples of reclassified documents posted on the security archive’s Web site, eight have been either published in the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States series or in the microfiche supplements to these publications.

Document No. 411 on the series' publicly accessible Web site still displays one of the now “classified” documents: http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/intel/400_414.html

A notice on the security archive Web site states that “many of the documents that have been withdrawn by the screeners since October 2001 fall somewhere between mundane and banal on the security classification sensitivity scale.”

The security archive and other groups, including the National Coalition for History and Public Citizen, sent a letter, dated Feb. 17, to J. William Leonard, director of NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office. The letter asks that Leonard audit the program, issue a public record of his findings and begin returning documents, with redactions only in instances in which secrets must be protected.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the security archive, said intelligence agencies are discounting the content and widespread publication of the declassified records. “The idea that you are going to claim it is classified when everybody has copies of it is ridiculous,” she said, adding that many of the documents are “very old and completely innocuous.”

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