Two months ago, a historian in Washington discovered that intelligence operatives were secretly re-classifying documents in the National Archives. This week, an internal investigation at the Archives concluded that about a third of the records pulled from the shelves should not have been reclassified. Brooke speaks with J. William Leonard, who oversaw the audit of the secret program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years now, government agencies have been quietly reviewing declassified documents and removing them from public shelves, sometimes because they could compromise national security, sometimes, it appears, for no good reason at all. A 1995 executive order by President Clinton, amended by President Bush in 2003, did give the green light to the CIA and other agencies to remove some documents, even after the customary 25-year limit on classification expired. But that order allowed for reclassification only under certain circumstances and with certain restrictions. Historians cried foul when the current seemingly covert operation to effectively un-declassify documents was exposed. They complained to the Information Security Oversight Office in February. Director J. William Leonard agreed to conduct an audit to find out what was going on. The results are now in. Bill Leonard, what did you find?
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: We found that since the current executive order had been implemented back in 1995, 25,315 records had been withdrawn from public access at the archives, purportedly because they contained classified national security information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You sampled about 1300 of them, and through that you determined that about two-thirds of them did contain information that should remain classified.
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: They contained information that met the standards for continued classification. I think an important point to recognize is that the current framework, it talks in terms of information that can be classified. It doesn't necessarily talk about what should be classified. Part of the decision process is the exercise of discretion and of judgment. But at the very least, two-thirds of the information did satisfy the standards for continued classification.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: About a third of the documents, a little more than a third, may not have been properly un-declassified. What were the most common mistakes you found in your sample?
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: There was a disturbingly large number of documents that, for the most part, were unclassified in their substance and solely were being restricted because on the C.C. line they had the name of a CIA official. Now, sometimes, of course, that could be very sensitive, but we found many times this CIA official was well-known [CHUCKLES] to work at the CIA and that the CIA themselves had disclosed previously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this was mostly a question of overzealous classifiers?
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: It's a reflection, I believe, of the culture. We rightfully identify and take action against individuals who disclose classified information in an unauthorized manner. What we fail to do sometimes at all is to take action against individuals who improperly restrict information in the first place. Every cleared individual, all three million of those Americans with security clearances, they have an affirmative responsibility to challenge what they perceive to be inappropriate classification decisions. It's never done, or very rarely done, but yet in the framework, in the executive order, it makes it very clear that there is that expectation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you propose there?
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: I'm asking agency heads to reinforce that affirmative obligation we all have. I'm asking them to appoint full-time officials whose sole role will be to facilitate and to encourage these classification challenges. I'm asking agency heads to conduct their own audits of their classified products, but don't wait 40 or 50 years to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: You know, in the month of June, audit and sample what you did in May, and make sure that when people classified it, it was, in fact, in accordance with the standards. Track the results of that, provide feedback, look at your trends and adjust your training accordingly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as you say, you're pulling against a culture of secrecy.
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: One of the things I mentioned the other day - it's an analogy that I feel very strongly about � to state the obvious, we're a nation at war. We send our young men and women into combat every day. We ask them to engage the enemy as part of their duty. We expect that they will wield their weapons with discipline and they will not do it indiscriminately. And they recognize that if they do, they will individually be held accountable. What I'm advocating is it's about time that us bureaucrats here are similarly held accountable with respect to how we wield the national security tools at our disposal. Now, there's a big difference between an M-4 rifle and a classification stamp. I recognize that. But at the same time, if we wield that critical national security tool indiscriminately, we will undermine its integrity, and if we undermine its integrity, it will not be able to protect the truly sensitive information that everyone recognizes we need to restrict access to in order to help preserve this nation's security.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you very much.
J. WILLIAM LEONARD: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J. William Leonard is the director of the Information Security Oversight Office. We'll link to the audit from our site, or you can find it at archives.gov. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from NPR.