National Security Archive Update, April 11, 2006
SECRET AGREEMENT REVEALS COVERT PROGRAM
National Archives Signed Deal with Air Force to Disguise
March 2002 Memorandum of Understanding Released
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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.
During the hearing, Archivist of the United States Alan 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.
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.