Secret agency labors to release its secrets

NSA: Workers scramble to declassify a growing mountain of aging top-secret documents.

April 10, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Inside a large yellow warehouse within the iron gates of the National Security Agency, thousands of boxes stuffed with the nation's secrets are piled to the ceiling.

For decades this place has been hidden from public view, a catacomb holding more than 15 million pages of documents filled with information about everything from the Vietnam War to President Kennedy's assassination to the Persian Gulf war.

Some of the documents may never be declassified. But for five years now, since former President Bill Clinton ordered that all documents 25 years old or older be turned over to the public, the agency has been in a mad dash to keep up, sorting through a never-ending deluge of paper, tapes, photographs and film, putting aside the documents they believe could threaten national security.

Called the Declass Factory, its workers - almost all of whom are former agency employees working on contract - sift, sort and read from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. in this one-time fortress that now reflects a subtle shift in agency philosophy.

For almost a half-century, the agency prohibited employees from even revealing where they worked. Now they sometimes stumble upon their own names in documents and secret projects from 30 years ago, as they prepare to release them to the public.

On any given day, more than a hundred workers in three rooms sort the documents, scan them into a computer or review them for content.

Stan Schneider, known among his colleagues as the "grand pooh-bah" of the shop, recently scanned a document marked "Top Secret" with the title "Evaluation of AFSA-23 Translations." Another reviewer and former employee, Cole Miller, sat at the cubicle across from him with headphones on, listening to classified briefings from the Vietnam War, occasionally shaking his head and letting out a chuckle.

Schneider said the work can range from tedious to exciting - his document, he said, being an example of the former.

"We classified this stuff 30 years ago, and now we're declassifying it," Schneider said. "All these people here worked at levels where they had broad exposure to many [signals intelligence] assignments; ... we've worked all the wars. Part of the fun of it is remembering things, saying, `Hey, remember working this conflict? Or remember that person? What a kook.'"

The area is broken up into "pods," - a series of cubicles - from which one person designated the "pod god" assigns documents to different people, trying to match their areas of expertise.

The process is methodical and efficient. Each day, most reviewers read 100 to 200 documents, which average about three pages each.

Last year, more than 15,000 boxes moved from the archive room through the factory. Since 1996, the agency has reviewed 50 million pages, releasing 35 million of them to the National Archives. For those that remain classified, the boxes return to the agency's archive, where, unless requested, they will sit for another 10 years before they are reviewed again.

The group has become so effective at moving through volumes of paper, the declass factory will soon begin to review all Freedom of Information requests as well. Until now, agency employees have handled these requests, but they are six years behind.

Besides reviewing all papers 25 years old and older, the group also must review all congressionally ordered material, such as searches for Nazi war crimes documents, and any piece of paper leaving the agency's Fort Meade campus, headed to Capitol Hill or other intelligence sites.

So far, officials say the shift to electronic communication has had little effect on the factory because the group is only now reviewing information from the early 1970s.

But computers have hardly slowed down the amount of paper and documents the agency is generating - it arrives in boxes each day to be archived. Those documents do not include employees' notes or transcripts of decoded material - all of which is sent to the agency's incinerator.

The NSA has long been a closed bunker, where documents sent to its archives may never again see the light of day.

Mike Ketcham, NSA's deputy chief of information policy, said part of the reason the agency has embraced the government's declassification order is because the agency would like to reveal more information about itself.

"This agency really is a vital part of national defense," Ketcham said. "Maybe if we release documents showing the successes we've had during the war in Korea and World War II, maybe they'll understand that what we're doing is really important.

"If we can't give the public a better understanding of what we do, we'll lose their support and we'll lose our ability to do our job," he said. "That's the banner we've picked up here. We all know what we've done. It would be great if people outside here knew, too."

Schneider said the reviewers are bound by strict guidelines that limit what can remain classified. Each week, they meet to discuss changes to the law and examine procedure.

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