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National Archives Tells Intelligence Agencies to Stop Removing Material

By Scott Shane


After complaints from historians, the National Archives on Thursday directed intelligence agencies to stop removing previously declassified historical documents from public access and urged them to return to the shelves as quickly as possible many of the records they had already pulled.

Allen Weinstein, the nation’s chief archivist, announced what he called a “moratorium” on reclassification of documents until an audit can be completed to determine which records should be secret.

A group of historians recently found that decades-old documents that they had photocopied years ago and that appeared to have little sensitivity had disappeared from the open files. They learned that in a program operated in secrecy since 1999, intelligence and defense agencies had removed more than 55,000 pages that agency officials believed had been wrongly declassified.

Weinstein, who became archivist of the United States a year ago, said he knew “precious little” about the seven-year-old reclassification program before it was disclosed in The New York Times on Feb. 21.

He said he did not want to prejudge the results of the audit being conducted by the archives’ Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees classification. But he said the archives’ goal is to make sure government records that can safely be released are available. The audit was ordered by J. William Leonard, head of the oversight office, after he met with historians on Jan. 27.

“The idea is to let people get on with their research and not reclassify documents unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Weinstein, who in the mid-1970s successfully sued the FBI to obtain records he used for his book about Alger Hiss, the State Department official found to be a Soviet spy.

The flap over reclassified records takes place at a time when record-setting numbers of documents are being classified, fewer historical records are being released and several criminal leak investigations are under way. Bush administration officials have cited the need to keep sensitive information from terrorist groups and executive privilege in justifying the need for secrecy, and some members of Congress have called for tougher laws against leaks.

Weinstein met with historians on Thursday to reveal the moratorium and plans for a “summit meeting” Monday with representatives of the intelligence and defense agencies, which have had teams of reviewers at the archives studying and pulling documents.

In a written statement, Weinstein called on those agencies to “commit the necessary resources to restore to the public shelves as quickly as possible the maximum amount of information consistent with the obligation to protect truly sensitive national security information.” The secret agreement governing the reclassification program prohibits the National Archives from naming the agencies involved, but archivists have said they include the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Air Force.