Thursday, February 23, 2006
NSA fights document reclassifcation
The Documents in Question
The National Security Archive at the GW made headlines Tuesday when it began actively working against federal intelligence agencies that are reclassifying thousands of previously declassified documents.
The secret reclassification program, revealed in Tuesday’s New York Times, seeks to remove declassified documents from the public realm. The National Security Archive, located on the seventh floor of Gelman Library, is making the now reclassified documents available on its website, along with a report on the government's secret program.
According to the Times, the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies have reclassified in excess of 55,000 pages from 9,500 documents that they felt were released prematurely.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archives, told The Daily Colonial that they first learned of the secret reclassification program when researcher Matthew Aid found examples of documents that had been pulled and reclassified.
Fuchs said that they then confronted the National Archives in Maryland, who told them of the secret reclassification program. The National Security Archives contacted the Information Security Oversight Office, who has begun an audit.
“They’re going to look at what was pulled and they're going to determine if it was properly reclassified,” she said. “We’ve also asked for a public report about what happened and recommendations for the future.”
Fuchs explained that much of what was being reclassified is “not, as far as we can tell, properly classifiable.”
The National Security Archive at GW has posted the reclassified documents and Aid’s report on the program on their website at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv.
In his report, Aid points to a complaint from the Director of Central Intelligence about poor publicity for the CIA's failure to predict anti-American riots in Bogota, Colombia as a document that was most likely being reclassified to because it is embarrassing for the agency.
Fuchs said there are problems with reclassifying documents that are not sensitive.
“One is, it costs money to maintain a classification system, so they’re spending money on things that don’t need to be classified because we have them, they’re already publicly known,” she said. The second problem was that “all the researchers who already have these files don’t know if they can use those documents or whether using them would be a crime,” she said. “It chills their First Amendment activities.
The reclassification program began in 1999 after concerns were raised in the intelligence community about Executive Order 12958, Classified National Security Information, signed in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, according to the Times. That executive order required that historical records that were 25 years or older be declassified by the end of 1999, except for certain exceptions including intelligence sources and cryptology.
Reports say the reclassification effort is highly secretive, with government officials refusing to comment on who is involved with the effort or which organizations are requesting reclassification of which documents.
A C.I.A. spokesperson declined to comment further on the reclassification program, referring only to agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano’s comments to the Times earlier in the week, in which he said that the C.I.A. was is “committed to the highest quality process” for determining what should be classified.
“Though the process typically works well, there will always be the anomaly, given the tremendous amount of material and multiple players involved,” Gimigliano told the Times.
Fuchs said that though she could not explain why the reclassification program was instated, it may have been because “intelligence and military agencies want to be in control of their information and they feel as though they lost control when major declassification efforts happened in the late '90s, so they’re trying to regain their control.”
Fuchs said she hopes that an improved classification will arise from this week’s revelations and the National Security Archive’s efforts to uncover it.
“We hope to gain a classification system that protects really important secrets really well and doesn’t waste resources protecting things that don't have to be a secret,” she said. “We think there is value to the public in knowing what the government is doing in order for the public to participate in the governance and public debate about policy.”
As for previously declassified documents that have been photocopied by researchers, Fuchs said it may become a difficult issue.
“The government’s position is that people who have these documents are holding classified documents, so it is conceivable that an agency might try to recoup the documents that researchers have,” she said.
Fuchs cautiously added that there was some rationale to the reclassification program in order to correct mistakes.
“There’s nothing wrong with them trying to correct mistakes to protect against the release of damaging information,” she said. “Our problem is that it seems like they have gone further than that, that they are protecting things that don't have to be kept secret.”
--Riki Parikh contributed to this report.