Steven Aftergood: Missing Files in the Age of Information





Steven Aftergood, in Slate (3-17-05):

The government does a remarkable job of counting the number of national security secrets it generates each year. Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent, said William Leonard in March 2 congressional testimony. His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004.

Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases. Once freely available, a growing number of these sources are now barred to the public as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." Less of a goal-directed policy than a bureaucratic reflex, the widespread clampdown on formerly public information reflects a largely inarticulate concern about "security." It also accords neatly with the Bush administration's preference for unchecked executive authority.

No comprehensive catalog of deleted information exists, which is part of the problem. What follows is a representative selection of categories of data that have been withdrawn from public access in the Bush years, with reflections on what they mean....

Historical Records at the National Archives.

Worried that sensitive information may have been improperly declassified in the late 1990s, government agencies took to scrubbing public records at the National Archives and elsewhere, pulling untold thousands of public records for "review" and possible reclassification. Many 30- or 50-year-old archival collections are a shadow of what they were just a few years ago.

On a recent visit to the National Archives, American University historian Anna Nelson recalled, "I found four boxes of Nixon documents full of nothing but withdrawal cards," signifying records that had been removed. In another collection of Johnson records concerning the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, "I found a box of 55 withdrawal cards."

Not all archive withdrawals are unwarranted. For instance, documents containing classified nuclear-weapons design information were discovered in otherwise declassified records collections, as this recent DOE report on inadvertent disclosures indicates. But the scope of current withdrawals goes beyond what's necessary and poses arbitrary obstacles to historical research...


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