Previously public intelligence documents, some more than 50 years old, have been sealed under a secret agreement between the National Archives and three federal agencies, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The 2002 agreement, obtained by The Associated Press and released by archivists this week, shows the agency agreed to keep quiet about U.S. intelligence's role in the deal that shut off access to thousands of previously unclassified CIA and Pentagon documents.
The agreement, which the AP requested three years ago, shows archivists were concerned about reclassifying previously available documents but still agreed to keep mum about the arrangement.
The deal said the archives "will not acknowledge the role of (intelligence agencies) in the review of these documents or the withholding of any documents determined to need continued protection from unauthorized disclosure."
The agreement added that the archives "will not disclose the true reason for the presence of (intelligence) personnel at the archives, to include disclosure to persons within NARA who do not have a validated need-to-know."
National Archivist Allen Weinstein applauded the release of the agreement and said an internal agency review on how best to handle reclassification requests should be completed by the end of this month.
"It is an important first step in finding the balance between continuing to protect national security and protecting the right to know by the American public," Weinstein said.
Intelligence officials began reviewing documents for reclassification in 1999, The New York Times reported earlier this year. Fearing a potential public outcry, officials with the archives and another unnamed intelligence agency kept the deal quiet.
"It is in the interest of both (unnamed agency) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been available publicly from the open shelves for extended periods of time," the agreement said.
The number of documents that have been removed from public view has soared since President Bush took office in 2001 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. The reclassified documents, which include 55,000 pages within 10,000 documents, deal with subjects ranging from information about 1948 anti-American riots in Colombia to a 1962 telegram containing a translation of a Belgrade news article about China's nuclear capabilities.
Weinstein announced a moratorium on the reclassification last month so his information security oversight office can audit the process. Historians and lawmakers, however, expressed concern about the secrecy in the reclassification agreement.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who has led hearings into the resealing of records, described the deal as "the culture of secrecy as tragicomic opera. One government agency has to sneak into the files of another ... to reclassify material that may have been on the public record for a decade or more."
Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists, described the deal as "baffling. It's basically a covert action taking place at the National Archives."
The agreement named two of the agencies involved in the reclassification program the Air Force and the CIA but removed the name of a third, arguing it would compromise national security, reveal internal government deliberations and violate statutes against disclosure of specific information.
Archives officials said the agency has no power to redact documents, and that names were removed by the Air Force, which negotiated the deal. In congressional testimony last month, Matthew Aid, a historian working at the private National Security Archive who discovered the resealing effort, said the third agency was the Defense Intelligence Agency.
William Leonard, head of the National Archive's information security oversight office, told lawmakers that protecting agency secrets while providing information to the public requires delicate balancing.
"When information is improperly declassified, or is not classified in the first place although clearly warranted, our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security and our interactions with foreign nations can be subject to potential harm," Leonard said.
"Conversely, too much classification ... or inappropriate reclassification, unnecessarily obstructs effective information sharing and impedes an informed citizenry, the hallmark of our democratic form of government."
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press