Thursday, April 27, 2006

NARA Audit Reveals Improper Reclassification

The National Archives' Internal Security Oversight Office (ISOO) has completed its audit of the (formerly-secret) reclassification program conducted over the past several years, and released its report yesterday. The audit uncovered evidence that 25,315 records were reclassified under the program - of a sample of those, 24% were found to fall under the category "clearly inappropriate for continued classification," and another 12% were "questionable."

"In one re-review effort," the audit reports, "the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) withdrew a considerable number of purely unclassified records in order to obfuscate the classified equity that the agency was intent on protecting. Included in the inappropriate category above, at least 12 percent of the records sampled had apparently been properly declassified, but were later improperly reclassified."

While the report concludes that reclassification was appropriate "anywhere from 50 percent to 98 percent of the time" (differing from review to review), "Even when a withdrawn record met the standard for continued classification, in a number of instances we believe insufficient judgment was applied to the decision to withdraw the record from public access."

Responding to the audit, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein released a lengthy statement, calling the percentage of improperly-reclassifed documents "stunning[ly] large," adding "In short, more than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with." Of the CIA's reclassifying records in order to keep other records hidden, Weinstein said "That practice, which undermined NARA's basic mission to preserve the authenticity of files under our stewardship, must never be repeated."

Weinstein went on to announce a series of six directives in response to the audit:

- New guidelines for agencies engaged in any reclassification efforts, which establish "standardized procedures that will ensure that withdrawal of records from public access are rare, are conducted in collaboration with NARA, and take place only when continued public access to a record would cause serious, demonstrable damage to national security."

- An effort to work "with the agencies involved to ensure that documents removed erroneously or improperly from open shelves at the National Archives will be restored to public access as expeditiously as possible."

- The formation of a National Declassification Initiative, intended to reduce a severe backlog of files marked for declassification and make them available.

- Appointment of "a team to undertake a longer-term analysis of how NARA processes the classified material in its custody."

- Recommendation for "an appropriation to be used to expedite processing of classified files, both paper and electronic, in order to begin reducing the unconscionable backlog of unprocessed documents due to funding shortfalls."

In a press conference, Weinstein commented "We're in the access business, not the classification business" as he announced these new measures.

This is a good start from NARA. Weinstein has conducted himself admirably throughout this process, and it is my hope that the Archives will manage to hold its ground here. As I've said before, of course I agree that materials should remain classified if their release would harm national security; but reclassification for its own sake makes no sense. Weinstein's responses seem appropriate to the situation, but as one researcher noted yesterday "It's too early to say whether this will solve the problem, but it brings the matter out into the open where it belongs."

The NYTimes, WaPo, and LATimes all have coverage of this story today.


Post a Comment

<< Home