More than 1 million pages of historical government documents — a stack taller than the U.S. Capitol — have been removed from public view since the September 2001 terrorism attacks. Some of the papers are more than a century old.

In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review because the government”s central record-keeping agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, did not have time for a more thorough audit.

“We just felt we couldn”t take the time and didn”t always have the expertise,” said Steve Tilley, who oversaw the program. Archives officials still are screening records, but the number of files pulled recently has declined dramatically, he said.

The records administration began removing materials under its “records of concern” program, launched in November 2001 after the Justice Department instructed agencies to be more guarded in releasing government papers. The agency has removed about 1.1 million pages, according to partially redacted monthly progress reports reviewed by the AP. The reports were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The pulled records include the presumably dangerous, such as nearly half a database from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with information about all federal facilities. But they also include the presumably useless, such as part of a collection about the Lower Colorado River Authority that includes 114-year-old papers.

In all, archivists identified as many as 625 million pages that could have been affected under the security program. In their haste to remove potentially harmful documents from view, archives officials acknowledged many records were withdrawn that should be available.

The archives program comes less than one year after the records administration came under fire for allowing public documents to be reclassified as secret under a separate program.

After the September 2001 attacks, the records administration signed a secret deal with the Pentagon and CIA to review and permit the removal of tens of thousands of pages from public view that intelligence officials thought had been declassified too hastily.

The director of an online coalition for freedom of information issues, Patrice McDermott of OpenThe Government.org, urged officials to create a public registry of withdrawn documents. She said officials should work toward releasing more than 400 million pages of backlogged files rather than removing smaller numbers of papers.

“This is a questionable use of tax dollars,” McDermott said.

Other researchers said the project, while well-intentioned, reinforces a culture of secrecy that became more pronounced after the September 2001 terror attacks.

“You want government to be vigilant when it comes to security, but you also want them to behave responsibly,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the government secrecy project for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists. “You can”t have a situation where secrecy becomes the default mode.”

Many of the removed records might be useful to terrorists, according to the AP”s review. Archivists removed records from the U.S. Surgeon General”s Preventive Medicine Division, which studied biological weapons created between 1941 and 1947.

Other records withdrawn don”t appear to be useful to terrorists. Archivists removed information from a 1960 Bureau of Indian Affairs report on enrollments in the Alaska”s Tlingit and Haida tribes because it included Social Security numbers, which could be used for identity theft.

Archives officials generally have received passing marks from secrecy experts who have been aware of the program, said Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, a George Washington University-based research institute. But Blanton also said the effort appears to be a case of misplaced priorities.

“Government””””””””s first instinct is to hide vulnerabilities, not to fix them,” said Blanton. “And that doesn””””””””t make us safer.”
From The Associated Press, accessed from http://www.statesmanjournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007703140329

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