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Open Shelves, Secret Agreements

The National Archives Reclassification Program

Queens College - City University of New York / 2011 / 214 pages

Written as a thesis (technically a “capstone project”) for a master’s degree in library and information science, Open Shelves, Secret Agreements examines the confidential document-reclassification program that existed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the early 2000s. In what everyone agreed was a “controversy” and some called a “scandal,” NARA permitted numerous government agencies to remove previously declassified documents from public access for purposes of reclassification review.


The program, which was done not just secretly but also under the cover of false stories, resulted in millions of pages of documentation being recalled, many never to return. Open Shelves recounts the history and ultimate exposure of the program; examines the responses of interested organizations and professional communities to that exposure; assesses the ways in which NARA has addressed relevant questions since the controversy abated; and considers the questions the program poses for archival ethics and freedom of information in a democratic society.


Open Shelves was challenging to research, organize, and finish off, partly because, like all academic theses, it had to fit exacting specifications of format and structure; and partly because I was working on it while also proofreading, licensing photographs, and doing other end-stage business on The Man Who Saw a Ghost. This isn’t a deeply personal piece of writing—except that in some ways it is. I chose the subject, cared more about it the more I learned, and sought to express with it my own weird sense of history, or my sense of history as weirdness. And everything

comes down, in the last section, to my interpretation of these events and their meanings. So although the style is impersonal, the matter is not.


Because it wasn't meant for publication, I’ve never placed this among my “actual” books; but I worked on it as intensively and as seriously as any of the others. It tells an important, intriguing story in a comprehensive and I believe not unentertaining way. It’s unusual, I’m proud of it, and I would be happy if others read it. And it was a lot of fun to write.


  • “Why would the CIA protect a World War I recipe for invisible ink as vital to national security in the new millennium?”


  • “Did the officials in charge of the National Archives in 1999 commit an ethical breach by permitting and participating in the secret agreements?”

  • “We who choose to do historical research appreciate it precisely because it is less scientific than other methods, while not being wholly unscientific. It requires discipline and critical scrutiny while enabling creative thought and conception; and it combines the scientist’s respect for fact with the artist’s sense of making a personal interpretation of reality.”

  • “NARA has always existed in the uncomfortable space between bureaucracy and populism, the government and the citizenry, and politics rather than archival principle have often seemed to determine its choices.”


  • “Steven Aftergood . . . informed readers that NARA files that had been open to the public for years were currently undergoing reclassification re-review, or ‘scrubbing,’ by government agencies. ‘Many 30- or 50-year-old archival collections,’ he wrote, ‘are a shadow of what they were just a few years ago.’”


  • “‘Researchers are finding bouquets of withdrawal slips in boxes that formerly contained declassified documents.’”


  • “The secret re-reviews were all traceable to a precise date: April 17, 1995—the day President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12958, dealing with ‘Classified National Security Information.’”


  • “The re-reviewers’ forays into pre-1995 records were sometimes based on reasoning best described as obdurate. ‘The National Archives has more than 18,000 boxes of records about US forces in Southeast Asia, stretching from 1950 to 1975,’ Lardner reported, ‘and Energy Department officials are looking at each one, even though no nuclear weapons were used in the conflict . . . Among the papers awaiting review are 31 boxes of applications to marry Vietnamese women.’”


  • “The MOU [Memo of Understanding] allowed the CIA to withdraw from the National Archives previously declassified documents for reclassification re-review, ‘in a way that will not draw unnecessary public attention.’ It directed that place markers (the ‘withdrawal cards’) be inserted where files had been removed, but that they ‘not contain any reference to CIA removal of the documents or any reason for the withholding of the documents.’”


  • “It was inevitable that the leadership of a country reeling from terrorist attacks would move toward an ethic of tightened security. But the years ahead would see an increase in secrecy, and concomitant decrease in transparency, unparalleled in American history. Even before 9/11, however, the National Archives had been placed in—and apparently had little resisted—the position of aiding this trend in federal culture, one wholly inimical to its own culture.”


  • “Nor did the documents seem particularly sensitive: years or even decades old, many involved such stale matters as propaganda balloons and Korean War intelligence estimates.”


  • “The point, again, is not to minimize Weinstein’s past misjudgments, for they are affronts to the historical record. But the gravity with which he took his duties as Archivist is shown by his response to the exposure of the reclassification program. In fact, Weinstein’s stewardship of NARA is one of the few bright spots in the program’s ethical murk.”

  • “None but the mindless will deny that some secrets—those with a legitimate bearing on the safety of individuals or of the nation—should remain secret. . . . The core issue has never been secrecy per se, but secrecy unchecked: secrecy without rational boundaries, interagency agreement, or external oversight; secrecy not for the sake of national security, but for the sake of shrouding official mistakes, preventing official embarrassment, and rewriting history.”

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