War Stories

Secret Again

The absurd scheme to reclassify documents.

Those who control the past control the future, Orwell famously wrote in 1984. In the realm of national-security policy, the battle for this control is heating up.

The latest skirmish started last December, when an independent scholar named Matthew Aid went to the National Archives to re-examine some declassified documents that he’d copied several months earlier and learned that they’d been removed from the public shelves and reclassified.

Looking into the matter further, he discovered that, over the last five years, in a program that itself has been a secret, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have reclassified 9,500 documents, constituting more than 55,000 pages, some of them dating back to World War II. And that’s just so far. The program under which they’ve been doing this—which has never been authorized or funded by Congress—is scheduled to continue until at least March 2007.

Many of these documents “fall somewhere between mundane and banal,” as Aid puts it. (The National Security Archive, a private research group housed at George Washington University, has reprinted some of them here.) Several of them were published years ago in the State Department’s official history volumes, Foreign Relations of the United States (a series that undergoes thorough security-vetting before publication). Quite a few of the papers seem to have been reclassified only because they’re embarrassing. For instance, one document reveals that, in the fall of 1950, the CIA predicted the Chinese would not intervene in the Korean War; 12 days later, they did. (Classifying, much less reclassifying documents for this purpose, if that was in fact the reason, is not just stupid but illegal. Federal law states: “No information … shall be classified in order to … prevent embarrassment of a person, organization, or agency.”)

Why is this happening? Much of the background is laid out by Matthew Aid, in an essay for the National Security Archive; my own sources have confirmed and built on his account. In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12958, stating that all classified documents should be made public after 25 years, except for those that fall under certain categories.

In 1998, officials inside the Department of Energy, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, expressed concerns that too much sensitive material had been mistakenly declassified in the rush to obey Clinton’s order. As a result, Congress passed the Kyl-Lott Amendment, authorizing the DoE to reclassify any and all documents relating to nuclear-weapons design. Even many freedom-of-information activists supported Kyl-Lott, though with reservations.

But then the Energy Department’s success inspired other agencies to wage a counteroffensive against the movement toward historical openness. In 1999, the CIA, the Defense Department, all three branches of the armed forces, and the Justice Department wrote to the chief of the National Archives, claiming that, under Clinton’s executive order, thousands of documents had been declassified improperly. They argued that their agencies had “equity” in those documents and that, therefore, they should have been consulted before declassification took place. Statutes governing the National Archive note that an agency has “equity” in some other agency’s documents if their declassification “would affect its interests or actions.” Let’s say a State Department document refers to some CIA intelligence estimates; according to the “equity” theory, State should not be allowed to declassify it without the CIA’s permission.

From 1999 to 2000, CIA security officials, citing this argument, removed and reclassified 1,400 State Department documents, totaling 9,750 pages, from the National Archives’ public shelves. These were among the documents that Matthew Aid tried to re-examine last December. In early 2001, the CIA and the other agencies demanded the right to go through all declassified documents—material released not just through Clinton’s order, but over the last several decades. In September 2003, they announced at a meeting of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation that they would soon expand their search to the declassified records on file at the Presidential Libraries. (How much they’ve actually examined has not been quantified. An official at the John F. Kennedy Library did not return three phone calls.)

It isn’t clear whether this campaign for control is being directed by the Bush administration or even to what extent political appointees are aware of it. It is clear, though, that the security apparatchiks—those who have always resisted the loosening of controls—intensified their efforts after Clinton left the White House, on the accurate premise that George W. Bush and his entourage would, at the very least, not mind.

With very few exceptions, we are not talking here about secrets that have anything to do with “national security” as anyone might reasonably define the term. In many cases, we are talking about documents that were publicly released—and have since been widely disseminated—after careful review by high-ranking military officers and security personnel. It is also worth noting that much of this reclassification is being conducted by junior officers, or in many cases private contractors who know nothing about the historical context of these documents and nothing about whether the contents are sensitive or innocuous. One military historian told me that some of these junior contractors have been instructed simply to reclassify anything bearing the words “atomic” or “restricted data,” regardless of what else the documents might or might not contain.

On Feb. 17, Matthew Aid and the heads of four historians’ groups wrote to William J. Leonard, director of the National Archive’s Information Security Oversight Office, asking him to conduct an audit of the reclassified documents. Such an audit is under way. This week, Leonard told Scott Shane of the New York Times that none of the documents he’d examined so far should be secret.

The National Archive does not have the authority to reverse the reclassifications. However, as the official White House adviser on classified information, Leonard could urge President Bush—who does have the executive power to direct the declassification of documents—to take action. Rep. Christopher Shays, a liberal Republican from Connecticut and chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, has scheduled hearings on the reclassification issue for next month. Maybe he’ll call Leonard to testify.

Matthew Aid says that if all this doesn’t compel the CIA and the other agencies to reverse their actions, he will file a request under the Freedom of Information Act to declassify all documents that have been reclassified since 2001. If they turn down the request, he will file a lawsuit.

Over the years, some agencies, including the CIA, have released treasure troves of once-classified documents that no longer have any bearing on national security. (Take a look at the CIA’s and State Department’s Web sites for example. Also check out the online libraries of declassified documents at the National Security Archive, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, and Steven Aftergood’s Secrecy News, among others.)

But the climate has been changing for a while now. In 1998, around the time this campaign got under way, the CIA refused to declassify documents about covert programs dating back to the 1960s. The State Department’s advisory committee complained, in a letter to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that without these documents, the official record of U.S. foreign policy was in danger of becoming “an official lie.” The reclassification of documents is an escalation of this broader campaign not merely to halt but to roll back freedom of information—to regain control of the past and all that goes with it.