Thursday, April 20, 2006

Finally Some Good News Out of Washington

This story in the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday was cheering. Allen Weinstein, Director of the National Archives, recently learned of secret agreements NARA had signed with government agencies allowing them to withdraw documents for national-security reasons without any notice to the public and without any indication of what had been removed. When Weinstein learned of these agreements, he moved to put a stop to them. Weinstein was a professor at Smith College when I was a student there, and was a man of personal and intellectual integrity. I'm glad to see he has put a stop to this offensive policy.

"National Archives Will Stop Letting Agencies Secretly Withdraw Documents

Hoping to restore its reputation among scholars and members of the public, the National Archives and Records Administration said on Monday that it would stop making secret agreements with government agencies that allow them to withdraw documents from the archives for national-security reasons, without public notice, and to restore the documents' classified status.

The move came the same day that officials disclosed that the archives had secretly made a deal with the Central Intelligence Agency soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The agreement allowed CIA agents to remove items from the archives without leaving any public record of what had been removed.

Allen Weinstein, who has been the archives' director since last year, said on Monday that he had learned of the agreement only last week, and that he had immediately rushed to denounce it. He sought, successfully, to get the agreement declassified.

Officials from the National Archives said in a statement that the arrangement would soon be replaced by more transparent standards, which are now being developed. The archives has also put a temporary stop to the removal of documents by government agencies, some of which have been seeking to reclassify certain documents for security reasons. Removal of documents will not be permitted until an audit of the process, now under way, is completed.

"There can never be a classified aspect to our mission," said Mr. Weinstein, in a written statement. "Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being."

Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the archives, said in an interview Tuesday that the archives must "walk a fine line" when it comes to high-level government documents.

"We do take in records that are classified and hold them until such time as they can be declassified and made public," she said. "That means that we have the trust of federal agencies to keep national-security secrets secret. But that doesn't mean that we can't do our business with agencies in a transparent way."

"We really are going to be much more transparent in our actions with agencies," she added. "Our mission is to make documents available, and we take that very seriously."

The now-declassified agreement with the CIA is available online.

News of the deal came just a few days after reports of a similar secret deal between the National Archives and the U.S. Air Force. A redacted version of that agreement is now also available online.

John W. Carlin, who led the National Archives when those secret deals were made, told The New York Times in a statement this week that he knew nothing about them. Michael J. Kurtz, an assistant archivist, signed both agreements.

'Genuine Scandal'

"This whole episode has been a genuine scandal for the archives," said Steven Aftergood, who directs a project at the Federation of American Scientists that tracks government secrecy.

"One expects a certain degree of mischief from the CIA and other agencies -- they mislead people all the time," said Mr. Aftergood. "That has been not been the normal experience at the archives."

But Mr. Aftergood applauded Mr. Weinstein's response. "He did not attempt to deny the existence of the problem, and he did not attempt to evade responsibility for it," Mr. Aftergood said. "Instead he moved to fix it, and that is something that we don't see very often these days."

"It is important that the archives be a champion of access to records and not a tool of other agencies that might have an interest in shaping perceptions of that record," added Mr. Aftergood.

Mr. Weinstein and other top officials from the National Archives held a meeting with several researchers and other constituents on Monday to inform them of the new policies.

Among those present at the meeting was Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Mr. Blanton said that Mr. Weinstein had appeared "livid" about the archives' agreement with the CIA, and that he had assured the meeting's participants that "it's not going to happen again if I can do anything about it."

Mr. Blanton said that the meeting reassured him, but that he and other researchers were eagerly awaiting the results of the audit being conducted of the archives' practices. The audit's findings are expected to be made public on April 26."

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