National Archives Information Security Oversight Office Releases Audit on Withdrawal of Records from Public Access
Press Release · Wednesday, Mar 5, 2014
Washington, DC…Today Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and Director of the Information Oversight Office (ISOO) J. William Leonard announced the results of the audit in a report entitled, "Withdrawal of Records from Public Access at the National Archives and Records Administration for Classification Purposes."
This 28-page audit report focused on the re-review efforts undertaken since 1995 by agencies that believed certain records at the National Archives were improperly made available to the public because they contained classified national security information and had not been declassified under proper authority. The audit found a number of unrelated efforts to identify such records, which resulted in the removal of at least 25,315 publicly available records. The audit concluded that only 64% of the sampled records met the standards for continued classification.
The audit, ordered by the Archivist, was in response to complaints from researchers who had reported to ISOO that many of the documents withdrawn from public shelves had been previously published and according to the researchers did not appear to warrant withdrawal for national security concerns.
In his remarks Archivist Weinstein quoted George Kennan, who conceded the existence of areas...in which there is a real need for secrecy and even for deception, but cautioning, even in these areas, against the erection of false pretenses and elaborate efforts to deceive. Otherwise, Kennan warned, We easily become ourselves, the sufferers from these methods of deception. For they inculcate in their authors, as well as their intended victims, unlimited cynicism, causing them to lose all realistic understanding of the inter-relationship, in what they are doing, of means and ends. The Archivist added, "We have a case in point today, with some of the findings described in ISOO's audit report."
In discussing the audit, Mr. Leonard said: "It would be wrong to look at the audit results set forth in this report solely in the context of declassification and reclassification. While the issues identified in these areas are significant, they are reflective of challenges confronting the classification system as a whole."
"The ability and authority to classify national security information is a critical tool at the disposal of the Government and its leaders to protect our nation and its citizens. In this time of constant and unique challenges to our national security, it is the duty of all of us engaged in public service to do everything possible to enhance the effectiveness of this tool. Yet, some of the practices highlighted by this audit can actually serve to undermine the integrity of the very system we depend upon to ensure that our nations adversaries cannot use national security related information to harm us," Mr. Leonard added.
The report outlined the objectives, delineated the agencies and records in question, and focused on the findings, and next steps. Highlights of the audit included the following:
- Identify the number of records withdrawn from the "open shelves" over the past several years because they purportedly contained classified national security information;
- Identify the agencies that required the withdrawal action;
- Identify the authorization and justification for the withdrawal;
- Through a statistically significant sample, determine the appropriateness of the classification action; and
- Examine the effectiveness of the National Archives internal processes and procedures and recommend improvements where required.
Agencies and Collections Involved:
- Department of Energy (DOE) Re-review Pursuant to "Kyl-Lott Amendment" (1999-Present)
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Re-review of Certain Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) Records (2000-2001)
- CIA (Various Collections) (2000-2003)
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Re-review at Eisenhower Presidential Library (2002)
- National Archives Re-reviews at Kennedy Presidential Library
- National Archives Re-review at Bush Presidential Library
- U.S. Air Force (USAF) Re-review (2002-Present)
- CIA Re-review of an "Internet Collection" (2005)
Number of records withdrawn from each collection:
|DOE (Referrals Only)||1999-Present||2,164|
|CIA (INR Collection)||2000-2001||3,147|
|CIA (Various Collections)||2000-2003||780|
|NARA Kennedy (two reviews)||2002 -2005||816|
|CIA (Internet Collection)||2005||254|
The audit concluded that 64% of the 1,353 records sampled did, in fact, contain information that met the standards for continued classification.
The audit also found that in attempting to recover records that still contained classified information, there were a number of instances when records that were clearly inappropriate for continued classification were removed from public access. ISOO concluded that 24% of the sampled records fell into this category, and an additional 12% were questionable. In one re-review effort, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) withdrew a considerable number of purely unclassified records in order to obfuscate the classified equity that the agency was intent on protecting. In addition, at least 167 records, or 12% of the total records sampled by ISOO, had been declassified properly initially but were later improperly reclassified.
The sample of records identified for withdrawal clearly met the standards for continued classification anywhere from 50% to 98% of the time, depending on the agency and the specific re-review effort.
Even when a withdrawn record met the standard for continued classification, in a number of instances ISOO believes insufficient judgment was applied to the decision to withdraw the record from public access. Moreover, in many of these instances, withdrawal did little to mitigate the potential damage to national security, especially if the record had been published elsewhere. At times, withdrawal could actually serve to exacerbate the potential damage by drawing undue attention to the record and creating a nexus to todays national security concerns.
There were a number of contributing factors to the issues identified by this audit. Sufficient quality control and oversight by both the agencies and ISOO has been lacking, as has proper documentation for declassified records. In addition, the National Archives has, at times, acquiesced too readily to the withdrawal of records. Furthermore, the National Archives has not had the resources available to keep pace with agencies re-review activity, let alone the overall declassification activity of the recent past. The most significant deficiency identified by this audit, however, was the absence of standards, including requisite levels of transparency, governing agency re-review activity at the National Archives. Absent these, the National Archives along with CIA and USAF resorted to ad hoc agreements that, in retrospect, all recognize should never have been classified in the first place.
- The affected agencies have agreed to interim guidance that includes provisions that require the public to be informed when records are withdrawn from public access at the National Archives due to classification action as well as how many records are affected.
- Under the leadership of the National Archives, the principal agencies involved in conducting classification reviews of records accessioned into the National Archives have agreed, in principle, to create a pilot National Declassification Initiative, in order to more effectively integrate the work they are doing in this area. This initiative will address the policies, procedures, structure, and resources needed to create a more reliable executive branch-wide declassification program.
- The National Archives will work with the agencies to ensure that documents removed erroneously or improperly from open shelves at the National Archives will be restored to public access as expeditiously as possible.
- The Archivist will appoint a team to undertake a longer-term analysis of how NARA processes classified materials in its custody.
- The ISOO Director has called upon agency heads to demonstrate personal commitment to the risk management principles embodied in the framework for classification and avoid the risk-averse practices that can serve to undermine the classification process.
- ISOO will develop additional training for agency personnel and users of classified information as well as workshops for researchers filing mandatory declassification review requests.
- The two existing Memoranda of Understanding between the National Archives and the CIA and Air Force related to re-review of declassified documents will be replaced with the interim protocol guidelines.
In conclusion, Archivist Weinstein said, "More than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with. That practice, which undermined the National Archives basic mission to preserve the authenticity of files under our stewardship, must never be repeated."
Read the entire audit and background materials at: www.archives.gov/declassification/.
This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
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