Audit Report Exposes Abuse of Classification System

Washington D.C., 26 April 2006 - Today the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) released an audit report of the secret historical document reclassification program conducted at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and other government agencies since at least 1999. The reclassification program was exposed in February 2006 when independent historian Matthew M. Aid confronted NARA about the explanation for numerous records being withdrawn from publicly available files. A subsequent inquiry revealed the existence of two classified Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between NARA, CIA, Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Air Force, and at least one other unidentified agency or agency component.

After the covert program was exposed, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein imposed a moratorium on reclassification activities until an audit was conducted of the program. The ISOO audit report issued today found "a total of ten unrelated efforts to identify such records, which resulted in the withdrawal of at least 25,315 publicly available records."

The report found that 24 percent of sampled records were clearly inappropriate for continued classification, and an additional 12 percent were questionable classification decisions, but were withdrawn from public access nonetheless. Materials that had been created in unclassified form or correctly declassified were reclassified under these programs, and unclassified material was classified in order to cover up the reclassification program. Even in cases where the material met the standard for classification, ISOO concluded in many cases that "insufficient judgment was applied to the decision to withdraw the record from public access." The report also stated that all of the agencies that signed the secret MOUs now recognized that the agreements "should never have been classified in the first place."

Archive General Counsel Meredith Fuchs reacted by stating, "We are stunned to learn that this program is even larger than we were previously told. For the last two months we thought only 9,500 records were reclassified. In fact more than twice that number were reclassified, and we now know that re-reviews happened at Presidential libraries as well as at NARA and that between 24 and 36 percent of those should not have been reclassified."

Commenting on the specific findings, Fuchs noted, "This report confirms our fears that some Executive Branch agencies are willing to pour taxpayer dollars into efforts to control all information for all time without considering whether it is necessary or even feasible. Not only did this surreptitious reclassification program draw attention to information that otherwise would likely have remained obscure, but it did so at tremendous cost. I can't imagine that we are any safer today than we would be if this reclassification program had never taken place."

The report includes a list of recommendations to prevent abuses of the classification system in the future. These include implementation of a National Declassification Initiative, public transparency in re-review processes, additional training in equity recognition, return of the improperly reclassified records to public access, standardized procedures, and continued ISOO oversight. ISOO plans to issue, within 60 days, guidance regarding essential documentation for declassification actions.

Fuchs commented, "We need a rational program that can expedite declassification of historic materials and is not controlled by the territoriality of individual agencies, such as a National Declassification Initiative like that recommended by the Moynihan Commission on Secrecy in 1997. Any reclassification of material should be held to a very high standard."

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