Classified Records Said to be Missing from National Archives

05.02.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

More than a thousand boxes of classified government records are believed to be missing from the Washington National Records Center (WNRC) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a three-year Inspector General investigation found.

But there are no indications of theft or espionage, an official said.

An inventory of the holdings at the Records Center determined that 81 boxes containing Top Secret information or Restricted Data (nuclear weapons information) were missing.  As of March 2011, an additional 1,540 boxes of material classified at the Secret or Confidential level also could not be located or accounted for, the Inspector General report on the matter said.  Each box can hold approximately 1.1 cubic feet or 2000 to 2500 sheets of paper.

The missing records “represent an ongoing failure at WNRC to protect some of the most sensitive information produced by the Federal Government,” wrote NARA Inspector General Paul Brachfeld in a 2009 letter to the Acting Archivist.

The IG report on the matter implied that it could constitute a violation of the Espionage Act, citing “alleged violations” of the espionage statues including prohibitions on “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information” (section 793), “disclosure of classified information” (section 798), and “unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material” (section 1924).

The results of the Inspector General investigation were first reported today in “Secret files missing at National Archives” by Jim McElhatton, The Washington Times, May 2.

The 2011 Inspector General report of investigation, released under the Freedom of Information Act, may be found here.

The missing records originated in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Army, the Navy, the Department of Energy, and other agencies.

The Inspector General report said that “At some point, the originating agency will have to make a determination on the effect the missing materials (from the missing 81 boxes) have on national security.”

In the meantime, “the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been notified of the missing classified materials per Department of Justice requirements.”

The problem of wayward official records, both classifed and unclassified, is not a new one. “In 1998 and 2004, WNRC conducted inventories of its classified holdings,” the Inspector General noted. “Both inventories revealed missing classified records.”

But more precisely, the inventories revealed discrepancies between the agency catalogs and the records on the shelf.  It is not entirely certain that any records have actually left official custody.  Today’s archival catalogs are pre-populated with the contents of a legacy hardcopy card catalog system that dates back many decades and that is inherently prone to error.

While poor records management practices are always problematic, there are several factors that would tend to mitigate the significance of the problem.

Many of the purportedly missing records are more than fifty years old, including one collection of pre-WWII records on “hydraulics.”  Almost all the records are more than 25 years old, and should have been declassified long ago.  The Washington National Records Center is not cleared for compartmented (SCI) intelligence records, and no such records are thought to be missing.