Saturday, March 04, 2006

Hearing Set on Agencies' Withdrawal of Papers From Archives
Hearing Set on Agencies' Withdrawal of Papers From Archives
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer

A congressional committee will look into a secret program under which federal intelligence agencies have withdrawn thousands of historical documents from public access at the National Archives, even though the records had been declassified.

"We are spending literally millions and millions of dollars to keep secrets from ourselves," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations. "We've got a huge problem."

The panel plans to hold an oversight hearing March 14 on federal policies for the handling of sensitive information. Shays said the suppression of documents that pose no threat to national security is indicative of a larger problem in which government secrecy is on the rise.

About 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages have been withdrawn from the public shelves and reclassified since 1999, according to the National Archives. The New York Times reported last month that outside historians discovered the practice and complained about it. Archivist Allen Weinstein announced a moratorium on the reclassification efforts Thursday.

While the archives will not name the agencies involved, historians with the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research library housed at George Washington University, say the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department and the Justice Department have participated.

Many of the records date to the 1940s and 1950s and their continued disclosure would pose no conceivable security risk, said historians who obtained copies of the records before reclassification. Such documents include old Cold War intelligence analyses and studies of political affairs in Mexico in the 1960s. Other documents appear to be the sort that should not have been declassified, historians say.

Weinstein said he is suspending the agencies' efforts to withdraw documents until the archives' Information Security Oversight Office completes an audit of the removed material. Results of the audit, which will help determine which records should be secret, are expected by late April.

"I felt that it was important to give people time to cool off in this whole matter," Weinstein said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's an effort to slow the trains down."

The program dates to the Clinton administration, when the CIA and other agencies began recalling documents they believed were improperly released under a 1995 executive order requiring declassification of many historical records 25 years old and older. The pace of the removal picked up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Some documents appear to have been withdrawn for no reason other than to spare official embarrassment, historians said. One document -- excerpts of an Oct. 12, 1950, memo from the CIA director to President Harry S. Truman -- says that while Chinese intervention in the Korea War was possible, "a consideration of all known factors leads to the conclusion that barring a Soviet decision for global war, such action is not probable in 1950." The Chinese invaded Korea on Nov. 26.

Independent historian Matthew M. Aid uncovered the reclassification program last summer when his requests for documents formerly available at the archives were delayed or denied.

"This isn't the first instance I've run into where intelligence agencies and the Pentagon and other government agencies have used classification to cover up faux pas," said Aid, author of a book on Cold War intelligence. "It just galled me."

Weinstein is scheduled to meet next week with national security agencies involved in the reclassification. The matter also is being studied by the Public Interest Declassification Board, a new, nine-member advisory panel that helps the executive branch sort out which classified documents should be made public.

Weinstein said the process has to be credible to the public. "Stuff has to be held back when it's important to hold it back, when you can make a legitimate legal case for not releasing it, not when you are going on impulse or gut reaction or just because you don't like something in some document," he said.