The absurd scheme to reclassify documents.
On Feb. 17, Matthew Aid and the heads of four historians' groups wrote to William J. Leonard, director of the National Archive's Information Security Oversight Office, asking him to conduct an audit of the reclassified documents. Such an audit is under way. This week, Leonard told Scott Shane of the New York Times that none of the documents he'd examined so far should be secret.
The National Archive does not have the authority to reverse the reclassifications. However, as the official White House adviser on classified information, Leonard could urge President Bush—who does have the executive power to direct the declassification of documents—to take action. Rep. Christopher Shays, a liberal Republican from Connecticut and chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, has scheduled hearings on the reclassification issue for next month. Maybe he'll call Leonard to testify.
Matthew Aid says that if all this doesn't compel the CIA and the other agencies to reverse their actions, he will file a request under the Freedom of Information Act to declassify all documents that have been reclassified since 2001. If they turn down the request, he will file a lawsuit.
Over the years, some agencies, including the CIA, have released treasure troves of once-classified documents that no longer have any bearing on national security. (Take a look at the CIA's and State Department's Web sites for example. Also check out the online libraries of declassified documents at the National Security Archive, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project, and Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News, among others.)
But the climate has been changing for a while now. In 1998, around the time this campaign got under way, the CIA refused to declassify documents about covert programs dating back to the 1960s. The State Department's advisory committee complained, in a letter to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that without these documents, the official record of U.S. foreign policy was in danger of becoming "an official lie." The reclassification of documents is an escalation of this broader campaign not merely to halt but to roll back freedom of information—to regain control of the past and all that goes with it.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.