For Their Eyes Only

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.

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