Letter to U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein Regarding Reclassification of Records

 

April 18, 2006

 

Archivist Allen Weinstein
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20408-0002

By fax: (202) 208-3267

 

Dear Professor Weinstein:

Archivists share a passion and professional ethic for open access to government records. We believe that a citizen’s right to review public records is a hallmark of democratic government. This right allows citizens to hold their public leaders accountable and to protect their rights and privileges.

Archivists understand that access to some records must be limited in the interests of national security and to protect individuals’ privacy. However, recent news articles about efforts begun before you took office to reclassify records, including references to a secret memorandum of understanding, have raised a number of concerns. We understand that these reclassification efforts may be an attempt to correct errors of documents mistakenly declassified.

At the same time, we are concerned that those agreements may have been an effort to restrict access to information for reasons other than national security. Our concerns are reinforced by a portion of the agreement with the Air Force that indicates the motivation was, in part, “to avoid the attention and researcher complaints that may arise from removing material that has already been available publicly from the open shelves for an extended period of time.” As Representative Christopher Shays said in a 14 March 2006 hearing, “Secrets are kept to protect the national security, not to prevent embarrassment or protect Cold War bureaucrats from history's judgment.”

We very much appreciate several actions that you have taken to balance the public’s need to know against national security interests, including

  • Halting all reclassification pending an audit to distinguish fact from fiction and gather the information necessary to make intelligent, informed decisions.
  • Holding a meeting with national security agencies to establish a balance between classification and access in a manner that is consistent with law, regulation, and common sense.
  • Calling for the resources necessary to restore access to government records while protecting truly sensitive national security information from unauthorized disclosure.
  • Establishing transparent standards governing the review of previously declassified records that have been available for research at the National Archives.
  • Publishing the memoranda of understanding between NARA and the Air Force and NARA and the CIA, and stating publicly, “If records must be removed for reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when it occurs and how many records are affected.”

The Society believes that only those documents that would pose a genuine security threat if open should be reclassified, that all other documents be left declassified, and that agreements with agencies restricting access to be published.

On behalf of the members of Council of the Society of American Archivists, I commend your efforts to support those principles.

Sincerely,

Richard Pearce-Moses
SAA President, 2005-2006