Decades-Old Docs Reclassified


Phew. I was worried there, for a second, that some evil-doer might learn our country's most sensitive secrets. Like the CIA's 1948 plan to drop leaflets behind the Iron Curtain. Or an English translation of a newspaper article on China's nukes -- from Belgrade, 1962.ts_red_brown.jpgLuckily, we won't have to worry about those breaches in security any more. Thanks to some intrepid intelligence agency bureaucrats, the New York Times reports, 55,000 "historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians... have been remov[ed] from public access."

The [program] began in 1999... 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was when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.Mr.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 [who has put his version of the whole affair online, and posted some of the reclassified papers] 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 Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret."If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Mr. Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."
"It is important to understand that there is no rigorous, consensual definition of what constitutes classified information," Steven Aftergood notes in today's Secrecy News. "Instead, in a practical sense, classified information is whatever the executive branch says it is."
In 1997, the Central Intelligence Agency declassified the total intelligence budget for that year ($26.6 billion). But intelligence budget figures from three, four and five decades earlier remain classified. Why? Because the CIA says so!One might argue that it should be the other way around -- budget figures from the remote past should be declassified while more recent figures should perhaps be classified. But such logic is foreign to CIA classification policy, and to the classification system as a whole.
"90 percent" of what's currently classified is being wrongly kept from the public, Rep. Chris Shays, chairman the national security panel of the House Committee on Government Reform, once told me. "I've read supposedly classified documents where page after page after page didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."Now, some might argue that it's still better to err on the side of keeping things clandestine -- that the risk of releasing one important secret is so great, it outweighs any potential benefit of making the information free.Those people would not include some of the country's top current and former spies, however. They argue that, by keeping a gazillion documents under wraps, spooks and cops and soldiers are prevented from sharing information. And that's not a good thing, when you're trying to track down terrorists."Our secrecy system is all about protecting secrecy officers, and has nothing to do with protecting secrets. It's a self-licking ice-cream cone," said Rich Haver, Donald Rumsfeld's former special assistant for intelligence. "We're compartmentalizing the shit out of things. It's causing a total meltdown of our intelligence processes."UPDATE 4:08 PM: Shays is going to hold a hearing on this next month. "Secrets are kept to protect the national security," he said in news release, "not to prevent embarrassment or protect Cold War bureaucrats from history's judgment. When many knowledgeable voices, including the 9/11 Commission, have called for greater openness and information sharing, our policies on creation and handling of sensitive information are moving in exactly the opposite direction. That threatens national security."UPDATE 4:15 PM: 1442 days ago, when the bioweapons-watchers Sunshine Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Academies of Science about some supposedly "non-lethal" weapons research, the group figured it would get a speedy response. After all, there's a law that "when NAS does a study for the government, documents that are deposited in the Public Access Records File are public." The Sunshine Project is still waiting. It's one of the group's "Top 10 Freedom of Information Failures," published today.(Big Ups: Nick)
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