Washington D.C., 11 April 2006 - The
National Archives and Records Administration secretly
agreed to a covert effort, led by the Air Force,
the CIA, and other still-hidden intelligence entities, to remove
open-shelf archival records and reclassify them while disguising
the results so that researchers would not complain, according
to a previously secret Memorandum
of Understanding (MOU). The secret agreement, made
between the Air Force and the National Archives, was declassified
pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request by the National
Security Archive and posted
on the NARA website yesterday.
The heavily excised MOU, signed by assistant archivist Michael
Kurtz in March 2002, reveals that the National Archives agreed
that the existence of the program was to be kept secret as long
as possible: "it is in the interests of both [excised]
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 publicly available,"
states the MOU. NARA agreed that the withdrawal sheets indicating
the removal of documents would conceal any reference to the program
and "any reason for the withholding of documents."
NARA also agreed to conceal the identities of the intelligence
personnel who were reviewing and removing the documents, according
to the agreement, including from NARA's own staff. "NARA
will not disclose the true reason for the presence of [deleted
agency] AFDO [deleted] personnel at the Archives, to include disclosure
to persons within NARA who do not have a validated need-to-know."
The National Security Archive first learned of the existence
of the agreement, classified SECRET/[codeword deleted], earlier
this year, when Archive staff accompanied historian Matthew Aid
to a meeting at NARA to complain about absurd reclassifications
such as 50-year-old documents that had been widely published.
On February 1, Archive analyst William Burr filed a Freedom of
Information Act request for the document. NARA and Defense Department
officials acknowledged the existence of the MOU at the March
14, 2006 hearing of a House Government Reform subcommittee
chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Ct), but refused to discuss
the substance of the MOU in public session. (Click
here to read excerpts from the March 14 hearing.)
During the hearing, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein
suffered persistent questioning about the MOU from Chairman Shays
and other members of the Committee, to which Dr. Weinstein could
only reply "it's classified."
"This secret agreement reveals nothing less than a covert
operation to white-out the nation's history, aided and abetted
by the National Archives," said National Security Archive
executive director Thomas Blanton.
The excised portions of the MOU released yesterday apparently
still hide other intelligence entities involved with the Air Force
and the CIA in reclassifying public records. The MOU was originally
classified at the codeword level, but the codeword itself remains
classified, according to the markings on the released MOU.
The reclassification activities at NARA began at the end of the
Clinton administration. So far, more than 55,000 pages of declassified
documents, dating back to the World War II era, have been removed
from the open files. During the March 14 hearing, Congressman
Shays noted that the reclassification program was not in the national
interest. "This absurd effort to put the toothpaste back
into the tube persists despite the growing consensus - supported
by testimony before this Subcommittee - that from fifty to ninety
percent of the material currently withheld should not be classified
at all," Shays stated in his opening statement.
According to National Security Archive historian William Burr,
concern over references in some declassified records to various
aerial reconnaissance systems that Air Force has used over the
years, such as the U-2 and the earlier GENETRIX balloon program,
may have triggered the reclassification project. Censored sections
of the MOU, he noted, could refer to operations of the National
Security Agency. If the NSA was involved, then perhaps the re-review
referenced in the MOU focused on specialized intelligence activities.
In February 2002, a recruitment
notice shows that the Raytheon Corporation received
a contract from the Air Force to conduct the reclassification
review and that the project team would include at least 20 people.