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Archives audit shows 1 in 3 records improperly reclassified

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   April 28, 2006

Archives audit shows 1 in 3 records improperly reclassified

  • Since 1995, federal agencies have withdrawn more than 25,000 previously public records from the National Archives, a large percentage of which should never have been removed.

April 28, 2006  ·   A recent audit at the National Archives has uncovered a massive, decade-long reclassification effort in which government agencies have withdrawn 25,315 records that were previously declassified.

The audit, conducted by the Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office, found that only

64 percent of the records agencies had rereviewed and withdrawn were properly removed. Thirty-six percent of the records withdrawn did not clearly meet the standards of classification set forth in a 1995 Executive Order outlining what must and may be deemed secret, said ISOO Director Bill Leonard.

The reclassification was brought to light last December by researcher and historian Matthew M. Aid who noticed that documents he had previously accessed were no longer available. He alerted Archivist Allen Weinstein who immediately called for a halt to the rereview of documents, and for an audit of what records had been withdrawn, which agencies had withdrawn the records and whether those withdrawals were appropriate. The 60-day audit resulted in an ISOO report outlining its findings and next steps.

“A stunning large percentage of the documents examined were wrongly classified,” Weinstein said Wednesday at a press conference. “More than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with.”

Records that have been reported on or whose contents have been publicly disseminated were not considered to be properly declassified, Leonard said. And people who have copies of records included in the 64 percent that were properly reclassified are “absolutely not” at risk of prosecution should they bring those contents to light, he said.

ISOO found that 10 independent reclassification efforts had been underway since 1995. Under the Executive Order, agencies can reclassify information in limited circumstances for national security reasons so long as it is authorized in writing by the agency head and approved by the ISOO director. Agencies involved with the efforts include the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Energy, the Air Force and the Federal Emergency and Management Agency. The report noted that in one of the CIA’s rereview efforts, it “withdrew a considerable number of purely unclassified records” to hide the name of an entity contained within that the agency simply did not want to disclose.

ISOO and the Archives are implementing measures to ensure oversight to the rereview process, which they report the agencies have agreed to follow. Agencies wishing to rereview documents must submit a written request to the Archives, which will be made public; agencies will have no more than 180 days to review a record, at which time they must either return it or give the Archives a reason for withdrawal; and the Archives will have the final determination — with an appeals process — of whether a record may be removed.

“Because of the absence of standards for the government’s rereview activities, the government has engaged in ad hoc review,” Leonard said. “Now all the agencies have agreed to our new sets of standards.”


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