Some Thoughts on Secrecy and Openness
Summer 2006, Vol. 38, No. 2
By Allen Weinstein
As a historian, I have relied personally on access to records in the stacks and vaults of the National Archives and Records Administration. They document not only the actions of the U.S. government, but also justifications and deliberations surrounding those actions. These records are the lifeblood of historians who write the story of the nation's past.
Just as important, government records provide information that Americans are entitled to have as citizens of a democracy, one rooted in openness and accountability where government actions should normally be transparent.
Earlier this year, I was astonished to learn of actions that seriously threaten these traditions of openness, accountability, and transparency. Previously declassified records in the National Archives had been quietly removed from our open shelves by their originating agencies with an eye toward reclassification—without public notice and without reasons being cited. Affected were records that researchers had already used, in some cases for decades.
A subsequent audit has revealed that more than 25,000 publicly available records, previously unclassified, had been withdrawn from NARA's stacks by their originating agencies since 1999. A random sample of 1,353 records revealed that a stunningly large portion of them—more than one-third—were wrongly reclassified.
The audit also revealed that in some cases, unclassified records were withdrawn to obfuscate or hide the reclassified records that the originating agency was actually attempting to protect. These practices, which undermine one of NARA's basic missions, to preserve the authenticity of files under its stewardship, must never be repeated.
The audit report and other documents related to this issue are available on NARA's web site.
Some background may be helpful in understanding this issue:
In 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order that required, by December 31, 2006, the declassification of all records that were at least 25 years old, with the exception of sensitive documents pertaining to national security. By 1999, some agencies that had created certain documents believed this material had been improperly declassified and, since they still had legal control over them, began to remove them from open shelves at NARA. (All of this occurred before I became Archivist in February 2005.)
In 2003, President Bush amended President Clinton's order to require that any reclassification be approved personally by the head or deputy head of an agency and that the reclassification action be reported to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is part of NARA. However, since 2003, ISOO has received no reports of reclassification.
Many of the record withdrawals were made in accordance with two written, classified agreements between NARA and other federal agencies that have only recently come to light—one with the Central Intelligence Agency signed in 2001, another with the U.S. Air Force in 2002. These agreements are now public and are posted on NARA's web site.
On March 2, I ordered a 60-day moratorium on any further reclassification of records from NARA's open shelves. Earlier, I had directed ISOO to conduct the audit; it was delivered on April 27.
To deal with the reclassification process in future, we are taking several steps that have both short-range and long-range implications.
During the 60-day moratorium, NARA staff met with officials of the agencies involved and agreed on new guidelines for classification. These guidelines are now being written as official regulations in a process that will include a period for public comment. Moreover, the bulk of the guidelines will be transparent and unclassified.
NARA is working with the affected agencies to see that improperly removed documents are back on the shelves as soon as possible. With ISOO and the affected agencies, NARA staff is developing a pilot National Declassification Initiative aimed at improving the management and handling of classified records.
To deal with the long-range issues, I have appointed a team to undertake an analysis of how NARA processes the classified materials in our custody. Also, we intend to do everything possible within our budgetary constraints to expedite the processing of both paper and electronic classified files so we can begin to reduce the unconscionable backlog of unprocessed documents.
At NARA, we are in the business of assuring access. There can never be a classified aspect to our mission. Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being, and NARA will never again be a party to such agreements.
Our focus is on preserving records and ensuring their availability to the American public while fulfilling the public's expectation that we will properly safeguard the classified records in our custody. Agencies have the prerogative to classify their requests to NARA if disclosure of the reasons would cause genuine identifiable damage to national security. However, what NARA does in response to such requests and how we do it will always be as transparent as possible.
If any records are removed in the future for defensible reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when that occurs and how many records are affected.
Inappropriate declassification of sensitive documents can expose citizens, the country, and our democracy to serious threats and potential harm. But inappropriate classification—and reclassification—strikes at the very heart of the democratic principles of openness, accountability, and transparency by which we govern ourselves.
As we continue to deal with this matter, we welcome the interest shown by NARA employees, our colleagues in government, the community of researchers, our stakeholder and customer groups, the media, and Prologue readers. If there are new developments, you will be informed sooner rather than later.
Allen Weinstein is Archivist of the United States.