1917 paper on troop movements still classified Secret U.S. documents estimated in millions

December 17, 1991|By Tim Weiner | Tim Weiner,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- A file designated WCD-9944-X-1 lies under lock and key on the sixth floor of the National Archives. Inside the file, faded and frail with age, is the oldest classified document in the United States.

Subject: troop movements in Europe. Date: April 15, 1917 -- nine days after the United States entered World War I. Classification: Confidential.

The document stays secret because the U.S. Army says releasing it would damage national security.

Archives are opening and secret documents are being released in nations once locked behind the Iron Curtain. Lies are being erased and blank spaces are being filled in their official histories. Yet in Washington, millions of documents remain classified for no clear reason, according to historians, researchers and government officials.

The secrecy that keeps the seal on file WCD-9944-X-1 "signifies the level of absurdity that the classification system has reached," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who discovered the document's existence last month.

No one knows how many classified documents there are in the United States. "A mountain . . . tens of millions or hundreds of millions or billions," says Steven Garfinkle, whose job as head of the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office is to track the government's secrecy system.

No one knows how to go about reading, declassifying and releasing all those documents. "We've got to do something or that mountain's going to build up more," Mr. Garfinkle said. "What we going do? Wave a magic wand and declassify it? Burn it?"

File WCD-9944-X-1 is one of "several documents that date back to the World War I era that remain classified," Mr. Garfinkle said. "Obviously it seems absurd on the surface."

Michael Knapp, an archivist at the military reference branch of the National Archives, is one of the few people to have seen the document since 1917. He said he uncovered it in response to Mr. Aftergood's Freedom of Information Act request for "the oldest military document that we have that is still classified."

Mr. Knapp said the document discusses "troop movements in Europe" during the first days of World War I. He said he could not discuss its title, its length or its language, since it is classified "Confidential."

That secrecy classification remained in place after the Army last reviewed the document in December 1976. Under a 1981 presidential order tightening security strictures, a document may be classified "Confidential" if its disclosure would damage national security.

The secrecy system isn't changing fast enough for historians who want access to 20th-century documents before the century ends.

Secrecy has caused huge deletions in the official compilation of foreign policy documents, "The Foreign Relations of the United States." The multivolume series, published since 1861, omits crucial chapters.

For example, it does not mention the fact that the United States helped overthrow the government of Iran in 1953. That's largely because the Central Intelligence Agency refused to declassify 38-year-old documents about the coup that restored the authority of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.

History is distorted when secrecy shields the past, argued Page Miller of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a coalition including the prestigious American Historical Association.

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