WASHINGTON -- In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have removed from public access thousands of historical documents that had been available for years, including some that have been published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.
The restoration of classified status to more than 55,000 previously declassified pages began in 1999, when the CIA and five other agencies objected to what they saw as a hasty release of sensitive information after a 1995 declassification order signed by President Bill Clinton. It accelerated after President Bush took office and especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to archives records.
Because the reclassification program is shrouded in secrecy - governed by a classified memorandum that prohibits the National Archives from saying which agencies are involved - it continued virtually without outside notice until December, when an intelligence historian, Matthew M. Aid, noticed that dozens of documents he had copied years ago had been withdrawn from the archives' open shelves.
Aid was struck by what seemed to him the innocuous contents of the documents, mostly decades-old State Department reports from the Korean War and the early Cold War. He found that eight reclassified documents had been published in the State Department's history series, "Foreign Relations of the United States."
"The stuff they pulled should never have been removed," he said. "Some of it is mundane, and some of it is outright ridiculous."
After Aid and other historians complained, the archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees government classification, began an audit of the reclassification program, said J. William Leonard, director of the office.
Leonard said he ordered the audit after reviewing 16 withdrawn documents and concluding that none should be secret.
"If those sample records were removed because somebody thought they were classified, I'm shocked and disappointed," Leonard said in an interview. "It just boggles the mind."
If Leonard finds that documents are being wrongly reclassified, his office could not unilaterally release them. But as the chief adviser to the White House on classification, he could urge a reversal or a revision of the reclassification program.
Among the 50 withdrawn documents that Aid found in his files is a 1948 memo on a CIA scheme to float balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop propaganda leaflets. It was reclassified in 2001 even though it had been published by the State Department in 1996.
Another historian, William Burr, found a dozen documents that he had copied years ago whose reclassification he said he considers "silly," including a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.
Guidelines call for government documents to be declassified after 25 years unless there is a particular reason to keep them secret.
Aid said that because of the reclassification program, some of the contents of his 22 file cabinets might technically place him in violation of the Espionage Act. The same could be true of scores of other historians. But no effort has been made to retrieve copies of reclassified documents, and it is not clear how they could be found.