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Secret reclassification of US documents

As part of a secret operation in place for over seven years, over 55,000 documents have been removed from the National Archives by various intelligence agencies. Historians are baffled as to why some of these documents would be reclassified. Others, for sure, are meant to expunge embarrassing moments. Here’s a sampling of removed documents from an article in the New York Times, “U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review” :

* a memorandum on a C.I.A. 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.

* 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.

* the C.I.A.’s assessment on Oct. 12, 1950, that Chinese intervention in the Korean War was “not probable in 1950.” Just two weeks later, on Oct. 27, some 300,000 Chinese troops crossed into Korea.

All of this raises the question, What’s a clandestinely inclined government to do when rogue reclassified documents reside in privately held collections? Let’s see – eighteen such documents, from the collection of intelligence historian Matthew Aid, are now up on the website of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University.

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1 Comment

  1. This story (U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review By Scott Shane, New York Times, February 21, 2006) describes a secret program to reclassify as secret documents that were formerly publicly available. Some of the documents “had been previously published in the State Department’s history series, Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS).

    In a seven-year-old secret program at the National Archives, intelligence agencies have been removing from public access thousands of historical documents that were available for years, including some already published by the State Department and others photocopied years ago by private historians.

    Now imagine a future in which our only (“official” or “authentic”) copies of FRUS are available from government-controlled web servers. Would those copies be expunged of offending information?

    If we had a depository system that deposited digital documents in depository libraries, those copies could be certified as “authentic” and “official” at the time of deposit — making it very difficult to withdraw information.

    See “History of U.S.-Greek Ties Blocked CIA Opposes Disclosure of Proposed Covert Actions in ’60s” by George Lardner Jr. (Washington Post, August 17, 2001, A21) for an example of why having a depository system helps prevent this kind of hiding of public documents.

    GPO officials said they were told by State to try to recall the books, which had been distributed to libraries throughout the world, but they have since abandoned that idea, saying that State denies ordering any recall.

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