The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) today released a second newly declassified Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the withdrawal of government records from its public collections.
National Archivist Allen Weinstein said that he discovered the existence of the second MOU (pdf), which was signed by the Central Intelligence Agency and NARA in October 2001, only last Thursday and that he immediately sought its declassification. Another MOU (pdf) on document withdrawal, signed by Air Force and NARA in March 2002, was released in declassified form last week.
Until its recent discovery by researcher Matthew Aid, with the support of the National Security Archive, the document withdrawal activity at the National Archives had been conducted secretly, as if it were some kind of covert action.
“It is in the interests of both the CIA and the National Archives and Records Administration to avoid the kind of public notice and researcher complaints that may arise from removing from the open shelves for extended periods of time records that had been public available,” the 2001 MOU stated.
The resulting firestorm of criticism that has been directed at the National Archives is “absolutely fair,” said Archivist Weinstein in a meeting with historians and public interest groups today.
He took responsibility for the affair (which originated prior to his appointment as Archivist). More significantly, he repudiated the underlying practice.
“There can never be a classified aspect to our mission,” Weinstein said. “Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being.”
“If records must be removed for reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when it occurs and how many records are affected.”
An audit of the document withdrawal program by the Information Security Oversight Office is expected to be released on April 26.
See this April 17 NARA news release, with links to the newly release MOU and related background material.
Beyond the unwarranted secrecy of the document withdrawal program, a deeper problem concerns official policy on classification of historical records.
Since many of the withdrawn documents are publicly accessible elsewhere, their withdrawal provides the public a rare opportunity to evaluate current classification policy as practiced by executive branch agencies. It is not a very satisfactory picture.
One publicly available document that was modified by the Central Intelligence Agency in a revealingly obtuse way was featured in a New York Times story yesterday.
See “Why the Secrecy? Only the Bureaucrats Know” by Scott Shane, New York Times, April 16 (free reg. req’d.).