National Archivist Demands End to Reclassification

Allen Weinstein, the national archivist, wants the Bush administration to stop reclassifying government documents that have entered the public domain. It's not clear whether he could win a confrontation over the issue.

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The head of the National Archives, Allen Weinstein, issued what he's calling a moratorium this week on the reclassification of government documents. It would mean that the Bush administration would have to halt a program in which officials have been examining documents that have been made public to see if they should be made secret again. It's a bold move, but Weinstein says he's not trying to cause a stir. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: Back in the 1970s, well before becoming the nation's chief archivist, Allen Weinstein was a historian, writing a book about Alger Hiss, the State Department official accused of being a Communist spy a generation earlier. Weinstein believed that Hiss might have been the victim of a government conspiracy. He sued the FBI to declassify documents about the case so he could learn more, and he won.

ALLEN WEINSTEIN: Once I got into the files, it was clear that there was no conspiracy against Mr. Hiss, and I basically changed my mind about his guilt or innocence and decided based on new evidence, based on the research I'd done elsewhere, based on what was in the files and what was not in the files, the FBI files, that the man was guilty.

GREENE: Weinstein was named by President Bush in 2004 to be the nation's chief archivist. But yesterday he took on the Bush administration, injecting himself into a simmering debate over classified documents. It began in 1999, when the Department of Energy began reviewing once-secret documents to see if any were mistakenly declassified. But about two weeks ago it was revealed that the Bush Administration had secretly expanded the program. At a quickening pace, other agencies, mainly in the intelligence community, have been taking documents off the archive shelves, examining them, and in some cases removing them. Weinstein yesterday called a halt to that.

WEINSTEIN: It was a decision that my colleagues and I came to here at the National Archives and Records Administration, because of a feeling that we should express our, call it our institutional perspective on where we stood at this particular moment.

GREENE: He says the word moratorium may be too strong, as he has no legal authority to classify and declassify.

WEINSTEIN: I would say what we're looking at is a serious request from the archivist of the United States, which I suspect will be honored by all concerned. I think I'll leave it at that for the moment.

GREENE: Weinstein said he had little knowledge of the reclassification program until it was reported in the media last month. But now he says he wants it stopped until an audit is done by his agency. So far the Bush Administration has taken 43 million pages off the shelf to inspect, and they've reclassified 55,000 of them. By blowing the whistle, if only temporarily, Weinstein has won praise from historians. Arnita Jones is executive director of the American Historical Association. She said she and other historians met with Weinstein on Thursday, and she says that she thinks that they made their point.

ARNITA A: Yeah, sometimes you do what we're doing now, which is to squawk if the government seems to be behaving in a way that's not altogether reasonable.

GREENE: Jones said she was alarmed by reports that an administration known for secrecy has been reclassifying decades-old documents. But she says she knows mistakes can be made, and that there are probably some documents that should go back to being off limits to the public.

JONES: We're not in the business of, you know, unilaterally declassifying documents ourselves just because we think it would be something neat to be added to our next book.

GREENE: As for the Bush Administration position, Judith Emmel is a spokeswoman for John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, who oversees the nation's intelligence agencies. She refused to go on tape, releasing instead a written statement saying that the administration wants to strike a balance between protecting truly sensitive national security information from unauthorized disclosure and ensuring that the public receives maximum access to unclassified archival records. No word on how the government will react to Weinstein's moratorium.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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