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ARCHIVES Home

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ARCHIVES  April 2006, Week 3

ARCHIVES April 2006, Week 3

Subject:

SAA statement, NARA reclassification, Anderson story

From:

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Date:

Wed, 19 Apr 2006 07:52:14 EDT

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Richard Cox writes, "While there is much that is good in the SAA statement on 
the NARA reclassification case, I am concerned about a few elements of this 
statement."  As is Richard, I am puzzled by why the SAA statement on the NARA 
reclassification issue is so limited in focus.   He correctly points to the 
premature quality of some of the wording, at a time when NARA's own internal 
review of the reclassification matter still is ongoing.  One can congratulate NARA 
for undertaking a review; however, no one knows yet what the short and long 
term outcome will be.  

This is a difficult challenge for the agency.  I tend to agree with Dr. 
Weinstein that while I myself wouldn't have accepted some aspects of the 
agreements, such the requirement to conceal the existence of re-review from the public, 
the classified MOUs probably were signed with good intentions.  Given the 
complexity of the issues, there is not way to tell how NARA will handle this 
ultimately.  If NARA ends up punting on the matter, as it has on some other issues 
in the past, some of the wording in the SAA statement will appear hollow.

I recognize that issues relating to NARA and especially to security 
classification can be difficult to unravel.  Perhaps that explains the curious silence 
on this List.  (Remember also that many List subscribers work at NARA.  While 
they follow with interest what we write here, they probably do not find it 
safe to post here on this issue.) Of course, I suppose a few List members may 
conflate their personal political views with attempts to examine governmental 
issues, no matter how objectively and in a neutral fashion, and simply tune out 
any stories about controversies involving executive branch agencies.  Others 
may not think about the fact that just as the theft of an artist's subject file 
or the removal of a map from the research room by a French woman represent 
ethical challenges, so does the way NARA reacts to pressure or input from 
external stakeholders.   

In an earlier posting about SAA last year, I asked you all to think about 
contentious issues within your own organizations.  How easy would it be for SAA 
to find out about them and to provide public support for you?)   Perhaps that 
is one reason why the SAA statement falls short.  Still, one would think we 
could do more (Richard correctly points to the offer of forums, etc., as options 
that could have been mentioned.)

Coincidentally, on the same day that SAA issued its statement, Maurita 
Baldock linked us to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education 
about FBI efforts to examine Jack Anderson's archival collection.  The NYT and 
WaPo picked up the story today.  Scott Shane notes in today's New York Times 
that "'Recovery of leaked C.I.A. and White House documents that Jack Anderson got 
back in the 70's has been on the F.B.I.'s wanted list for decades,' Mr. 
Blanton said."   

The leaking of security classified records by government employees is wrong - 
 period.  But we should consider the fact that if the government misuses its 
classification authority, or overclassifies information, the likelihood of 
leaks likely will increase.  Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, we are 
more likely to read about the government's attempts to reclaim documents that 
a Jack Anderson might hold than about admonitions to use classification 
authority properly.  Or for government officials to act ethically and with 
integrity in difficult situations, thereby avoiding altogether the temptation to ask 
others to cover up actions by improperly stamping something secret.  

There are people involved in every step of the way in creating and handling 
records.  They can be the weakest or the strongest links in the process.  
Whatever is in them, ultimately, government records end up at the National 
Archives.  That's the final stop for records of national memory.  If NARA can't 
properly handle them, then we all are in real trouble.

Consider what Bill Leonard said about some of this in a speech in 2004 (yes, 
that's the same Bill Leonard who is the director of NARA's ISOO unit, the man 
now in charge of the internal review of the reclassification issue):  

". . . like all authority, classification authority is not without limits. 
There are some very clear prohibitions with respect to the use of 
classification. Specifically, in no case can information be classified in order to conceal 
violations of law or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or 
agency. Nonetheless, you are all probably aware of certain information dealing 
with the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison that has apparently been 
classified. The Department of Defense is currently in the process of addressing a 
number of concerns I have raised with them in this regard and I await their 
formal reply.  . . . 

And what is gained by classifying such activity? Our values as a society are 
such that they will invariably serve as a self-correcting measure when 
confronted with such abuses - thus the inevitability that such information will 
eventually become widely known. At the same time, the initial act of classification 
can negatively impact the timeliness and completeness of notifications 
provided to certain Government officials, thus impairing their ability to deal with 
ensuing issues. In the final analysis, we only succeed in keeping the 
information from those who need to know it the most - the American people and their 
leaders - and even then, we only delay the inevitable."

He also noted that

". . . as evidenced by a review of newspaper headlines over the past several 
months, agencies are finding it is increasingly difficult for them to hold 
their cleared employees accountable for adhering to the requirements for 
protecting classified information unless they likewise adhere to their provisions. . . 
. Added to the above is my experience that many senior officials will 
candidly acknowledge that the Government classifies too much information, although 
oftentimes the observation is made with respect to the activities of agencies 
other than their own. . . . I believe that it is no coincidence that some of 
these same agencies are currently experiencing a veritable epidemic of leaks - 
part and parcel of what occurs when individuals begin to loose confidence in the 
security classification system."

SOURCE:  William Leonard, "The Importance of Basics," June 15, 2004, at
http://www.archives.gov/isoo/speeches-and-articles/ncms-2004.html

To read Bill Leonard's bio, see 
http://www.archives.gov/isoo/about/director.html .  I do not know him, have never met him, but know several people who now 
work for or have worked for him recently.  In fact, my late sister, Eva, 
trained and was a mentor to several such employees.

Until NARA finishes its review, we will not know how much our longterm 
confidence in the agency should be affected.  As does Richard, I wish SAA's 
statement would have been more nuanced and had reflected greater contextual 
sophistication.  I give SAA credit for putting something out relatively quickly, and 
hitting some of the important points, but hope yesterday's release does not 
represent its final word on these complex issues.

Maarja (former NARA Nixon tapes archivist, 1976-1990)

A posting from the Archives & Archivists LISTSERV List sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, www.archivists.org.
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