February 21, 2006

Secret Re-Secreting of, Uh, Secret Stuff that Should have Stayed Secret (Sorta)

NYT (emphasis mine):

In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the Central Intelligence Agency and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after the Bush administration took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records.

But because the reclassification program is itself shrouded in secrecy governed by a still-classified memorandum that prohibits the National Archives even from saying which agencies are involved it continued virtually without outside notice until December. That was when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.

Mr. Aid was struck by what seemed to him the innocuous contents of the documents mostly decades-old State Department reports from the Korean War and the early cold war. He found that eight reclassified documents had been previously published in the State Department's history series, "Foreign Relations of the United States."

"The stuff they pulled should never have been removed," he said. "Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright ridiculous."

And they laugh when we say this administration is obsessed with secrecy. Ooh wait, I see why. They're going to use this on Massachusetts!

Among the 50 withdrawn documents that Mr. Aid found in his own files is a 1948 memorandum on a C.I.A. scheme to float balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop propaganda leaflets. It was reclassified in 2001 even though it had been published by the State Department in 1996.

It all becomes clear!

While some of the choices made by the security reviewers at the archives are baffling, others seem guided by an old bureaucratic reflex: to cover up embarrassments, even if they occurred a half-century ago.

Now, that makes perfect sense, or does it?

"It doesn't make sense to create a category of documents that are classified but that everyone already has," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University. "These documents were on open shelves for years."

Oh, what the hell! Who cares how much it costs... there are plenty of forests to sell!

Yet again, the question that keeps coming up about whether things like this are directed from a conspiratorial administration, or whether the culture fostered under that administration encourages behavior like this. I know there is plenty of tinfoil hattism, but I'm leaning toward culture too.

But the historians say the program is removing material that can do no conceivable harm to national security. They say it is part of a marked trend toward greater secrecy under the Bush administration, which has increased the pace of classifying documents, slowed declassification and discouraged the release of some material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Experts on government secrecy believe the C.I.A. and other spy agencies, not the White House, are the driving force behind the reclassification program.

"I think it's driven by the individual agencies, which have bureaucratic sensitivities to protect," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, editor of the online weekly Secrecy News. "But it was clearly encouraged by the administration's overall embrace of secrecy."

Oh, and the grounds for the secret re-secreting?

The explanation, said Mr. Leonard, the head of the office, is a bureaucratic quirk. The intelligence agencies take the position that the reclassified documents were never properly declassified, even though they were reviewed, stamped "declassified," freely given to researchers and even published, he said.

Thus, the agencies argue, the documents remain classified and pulling them from public access is not really reclassification.


Posted by binky at February 21, 2006 12:03 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Free Speech | J. Edgar Hoover | Liberty | The Ever Shrinking Constitution | You Can't Make This Stuff Up


So, I've heard other people at this blog argue that the CIA and State Department should be listened to more by the Bush administration when they disagree with the President, because they know what they're doing and Bush doesn't. But these documents began their reclassification in 1999, before Bush was even in power, so obviously it was not Bush who instigated this process, and that it accelerated after 9/11 would follow if their was pressure to reclassify documents already within these agencies concerning whatever security issues they perceive. I guess what I'm looking for is a position on whether we're supposed to listen to CIA and State. This blog seems to advocate listening to them when they criticize Bush, but this post suggests we should not listen to them regarding reclassifying documents. So, do they know what they're doing or not?

Posted by: Morris at February 21, 2006 08:29 AM | PERMALINK

You also may have heard us talk about liberty. It is possible to hold two different thoughts at one time.

Posted by: binky at February 21, 2006 08:38 AM | PERMALINK

Are you then saying that the CIA and State Department aren't always right, that you agree with Bush because he also doesn't think they're always right? Are you saying that if they can be wrong about one issue they may be wrong about others, so maybe Bush isn't an idiot for not trusting their every whim, not kowtowing to every agent who disagrees with him?

Posted by: Morris at February 21, 2006 09:06 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure. I do love to see kowtowing.

Posted by: binky at February 21, 2006 09:15 AM | PERMALINK

Morris - Have you met a person who's always right? If so - do tell. And please stop being so stupid with this utterly inane argument.

The fact that the CIA and the State Department enforce this ridiculous anti-freedom and open government policy has nothing whatsoever with the fact that President Bush blindly ignored these agencies recommendations and fears about going to war with Iraq (which with hindsight we can pretty clearly say was an amazingly stupid thing to do since more often that not the professionals at these agencies clearly had a much better grasp on how events would unfold than President Bush did).

This policy is idiotic. And, it's worth noting since the article notes it, the enforcement of it was turned up several notches once our Secret Keepers in Chief (Bush and Cheney) took charge. But just b/c an organization does 1 dumb thing, it's hardly the case that every thing they do should become suspect. Especially when over time events have shown them to have been very much right on those matters (at least if we are talking about the experts at State).

Posted by: Armand at February 21, 2006 09:31 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, it wasn't turned up when Bush and Cheney took charge, and considering the article noted when it did accelerate, it follows they would have noted this as well. It did accelerate after 9/11, just as it did accelerate in 1999, so there's no reason to presume Bush and Cheney had anything to do with it, but I'm sure that won't stop you. Again, here's the ad hominem attacks. When Bush rejects advice from State and CIA after years of negotiating with Saddam and the CIA's slam-dunk assurance regarding WMDs, it's "blindly." When the bloodless crew rejects State and CIA, it's after the full consideration of what, maybe an hour since you read this story in the NYT?

Posted by: Morris at February 21, 2006 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

the "slam dunk assurances" you keep returning to came after everyone close to the administration acknowledges bush signaled very clearly what he wanted to hear. either you've never worked for the sort of autocracy a presidential inner circle can be, which is to say, you've never done a day of work for a boss -- properly understood -- in your entire life, or you're willfully ignorant of how much a boss's clearly signaled intent as to what he expects to hear can push employees off the rails of their own inclinations and convictions. the slam dunk case was anything but, and bush made it clear that a slam dunk was what he wanted to hear about; he should have been suspicious.

regarding when the president should and should not rely on CIA, DIA, etc., how's this: when it's a political question, like whether to permit people to have access to utterly pointless information that at most has some sort of embarrassing effect on how government circa fifty years ago screwed up this or that thing, the president should make it very clear that that's not the CIA's business, and that the country's interest in illuminated government outweighs the agencies parochial interest in not allowing egg to smear the corpse faces of agency officers long dead and gone.

on the other hand, when you're talking about intelligence, and everyone who has any -- i.e., has access to field agents and smart people who've dedicated their lives to studying the people of one region or nation -- is telling you something you don't want to hear, don't ignore them unless you or your immediate subordinates know something other than the hare-brained theories of some ensconced think tank with an ideological and economic agenda in conflict with the nation's best interests.

in short, the CIA does field intelligence and analysis. in these areas, listen to them when they're lining up in support of a particular view. oh, and don't appoint political hacks to oversee their work unless you want hopelessly compromised work out of them. the CIA does not, on the other hand, or at least should not, decide what this country gets to know about things that don't directly bear on national security. the balloon propaganda plan, for example, is absurd, as acknowledged by the government official in charge of classification decisions.

i agree with you, morris, that based on the article little can be said to distinguish clinton and bush in this area. but a) clinton tried, and b) now we've got some sunlight on it. so let's have at it, buddy: is this an embarrassment? should bush direct his subordinates to stop reclassifying the laundry lists of CIA admins circa 1945? or should he round up all the people with copies of this tremendously sensitive info and send them to guantanamo for a little due process, bush style?

seriously morris, this is a little editorializing, to which you needn't respond, and a direct question, to which you're invited to respond but i'm guessing you won't.

Posted by: Moon at February 21, 2006 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

What do you want exactly here Morris? 1) We think Bush was stupid not to listen to the State Dept. - check - and in light of how things have developed over the last 3 years, we sure as hell aren't the only people who think he was stupid for not doing that. 2) We think this policy is stupid and not in line with the freedoms and openness we think the government should support.

And of course Bush himself is wrong on both of these counts - for blindly ignoring the warnings from State, and for moving this country in the direction of a everything-is-secret, you-can't-know-the-laws, do-as-we say government that conservatives used to revile - before, for some unknown reason, they decided to like this supposed rancher.

I fail to see any inconsistency in our position. We think the State Dept. and CIA are both often right in their assessment, yet also capable of carrying out dumb, destructive policies (particularly when ordered to do so by president's with little actual knowledge of foreign affairs). This is somehow controversial? Wow - an organization can be right some of the time and wrong some of the time - who knew?

Posted by: Armand at February 21, 2006 10:37 AM | PERMALINK
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