In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the National Archives and Records Administration has released two “Memorandum of Understanding” documents detailing a program to secretly withdraw and reclassify documents held by the federal government. The memos were themselves reclassified in 2001 and 2002.
Government archivists began reclassifying thousands of pages of public documents during the Clinton administration in cooperation with the Air Force, CIA, Defense Department and other federal entities. The recently re-released memos said the reclassified documents contain information that could “harm the national security interests of the United States by revealing sensitive sources and methods of intelligence collection.”
“It is in the interests of both [deleted agency] and the National Archives and Records Administration to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been publicly available from the open shelves for extended periods of time,” said the memo.
The request for the first memo was put forward by the National Security Archive, a non-governmental group at George Washington University that works to declassify historical federal documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Archive analyst William Burr requested the first memo Feb. 1, after Archive staff and historian Matthew Aid made complaints to the National Archives and Records Administration about the reclassification of documents.
“The secret agreement reveals nothing less than a covert operation to white-out the nation’s history aided and abetted by the National Archives,” National Security Archive executive director Thomas Blanton said of the government’s secret program to classify the already public documents.
In a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing chaired by Representative Christopher Shays, R-Conn., Shays said the program was not in the nation’s best interest.
“This absurd effort to put the toothpaste back into the tube persists despite growing consensus – supported by testimony before this subcommittee – that from 50 to 90 percent of the material currently withheld should not be classified at all,” he said.
Archivist of the United States Alan Weinstein took responsibility for the secret program when the second memo was released early this week, declaring that the secrecy of the reclassification was wrong.
“Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being,” Weinstein said of the NARA.
“If records must be removed for reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when it occurs and how many records are affected,” he said.
The documents withdrawn from public record under the program described by the Memorandum of Understanding releases are said to date as far back as the 1940s and 1950s and do not reveal some of the organizations involved in the reclassification program, the specific NARA personnel who reclassified the documents, and the codeword for the program.
“NARA will not disclose the true reason for the presence of . [the] personnel at the archives,” the first MOU memo said.
The revelation of the secret program will offer the public the opportunity to reevaluate government agencies’ classification processes and their criteria for prospective classified documents.