Every year, tens of thousands of children are paraded through the Romanesque museum of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. While the symbolism is likely lost on most youngsters, it's appropriate that these egalitarian blueprints, motivated in large part by the desire to keep the business of governing transparent, were placed in the care of NARA. Considering the current administration's little-known policy of information suppression over the past six years, one could also view these exhibits as more than a little ironic.
NARA, whose slogan is 'Democracy Starts Here,' was established in 1934 to ensure that the public has access to documents that track the actions of federal officials, including those in Congress and the military. Some of the papers in the agency's care, especially those with a military history, are classified. And keeping that information secret is not cheap-in 2005, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, it cost $7.7 billion to, among other things, pay for storage and security.
In 1995, in part because of these sorts of costs, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order mandating that all documents under NARA's purview and over 25 years old be made public, unless they met strict national security requirements, such as a paper tracking a foreign spy or information on atomic energy secrets. An op-ed piece in the New York Times (Jan. 3, 1996) hailed the move as 'a landmark victory for open government.'
Some four years later, the U.S. intelligence community was embarrassed by a leak of U.S. nuclear secrets to China. In reaction, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a congressional amendment to severely limit declassification. Shortly after the legislation took effect, a number of government agencies, including the CIA and the Department of Defense, pulled 55 boxes of State Department documents off the shelves in the National Archives and reclassified them as secret.
When President George W. Bush took office, one of his first acts was to further amend Clinton's executive order and delay the declassification of Reagan-era documents. The original intent was to protect military secrets, but between 2000 and 2006 the program expanded to include anything embarrassing to the government, including information on unsanctioned CIA programs and military intelligence blunders that occurred more than 40 years ago. The reclassifications were effected in secret with little to no oversight.
It wasn't until an independent researcher named Mathew Aid began producing years-old photocopies of certain documents, along with evidence of improper reclassification, that the policy was made public. With the help of the National Security Archive, a government watchdog organization, Aid blew the lid off the clandestine program. In February 2006, the New York Times reported that 55,000 records had been improperly taken from the National Archives and made secret by the CIA and other government agencies.
'What may be most significant,' according to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, 'is the way in which [the NARA reclassification effort] exemplifies a much larger trend of restricting information for the general public.' Aftergood publishes the online newsletter Secrecy News, which covers issues of government secrecy and information suppression. While recent public scrutiny seems to have put an end to the improper NARA reclassifications, Aftergood insists that the incident was simply a 'small subset of a much larger problem.'
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive, agrees. 'It's our position,' Fuchs explains, 'that there are all sorts of efforts, not just this one, to close down access to information.' The improper classifications in the National Archives simply represent one of the clearest abuses of U.S. government secrecy in recent memory.
Aftergood and Fuchs agree that some documents must remain classified, but the disorganized nature of the National Archives incident is a clear indication of the need for more government openness. The National Security Archive and the Federation of American Scientists, along with independent researchers like Russ Kick of the TheMemoryHole.org and organizations like OpenTheGovernment.org, have been working to restore public access to government documents, and to ensure the accountability set out in documents like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.