Secretly secret

April 13, 2006

Federal agencies have been whiting-out history for at least the past six years, but it's all hush-hush.

The reclassification of 55,000 documents that had long been available to public view didn't involve much big stuff, such as nuclear stockpiles. Most of it was just embarrassing, such as accounts of the many times world developments caught U.S. intelligence experts by surprise or of a goofy Cold War scheme to leaflet Eastern Europe by hot-air balloon. Much had been published and is widely available.

Yet the National Archives, which is supposed to err on the side of openness, not only participated in this attempt to recapture cats already let out of the bag but also agreed to conduct the effort clandestinely so as not to alert researchers and spark their complaints.

This is what happens when "the cold dead hand of the bureaucracy" controls its own secrets, says Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private research library. The policy is: When in doubt, white it out.

The National Archives staff needs the muscle of an independent outside review board to withstand bullying from federal agencies and administrations with little regard for the public's right to know.

Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, suspended the reclassification program last month to conduct an audit of the material rehidden behind a secrecy veil. That veil must have been thick. Mr. Weinstein, who has been on the job for only a year, told a congressional committee that even he didn't know about the program until it was revealed by The New York Times.

Auditors are expected to recommend that the National Archives and federal agencies inform the public when previously available material is suddenly withdrawn.

But that's not good enough. The secret re-secret program was developed in response to former President Bill Clinton's 1995 directive to declassify material more than 25 years old. One by one, the agencies rebelled and began yanking back their dirty laundry even before Mr. Clinton left office in 2001.

No one in government should have total control over such decisions. But keep that under your hat.

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