Records Withdrawn from Public Access

Bruce Craig, May 2002

Much to the dismay of historians and other scholars, thousands of pages of historically valuable documents that served as the basis for published research concerning intelligence in the early Cold War years have been withdrawn from public access by the National Archives. According to the on-line publication Secrecy News, historian Matthew M. Aid recently found a large body of once open materials missing from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland while conducting research there. Once a part of Record Group 38, boxes 2739–2747 were part of a special collection entitled, "Translations of Intercepted Enemy Radio Traffic." They provided researchers with an unparalleled insight into U.S. signals intelligence activity in the period 1947–49. According to Aid, "All in all, these records were essential reading for any serious researcher trying to document the successes and failures of the U.S.-British intelligence effort in the years after the end of World War II." Despite their withdrawal, the substance of some of the missing documents has already been integrated into various books and articles. Aid cited them extensively in a recent book he coedited with Dutch scholar Cees Wiebes entitled, Secrets of Signals Intelligence During the Cold War and Beyond (London: Frank Cass, 2001) and historian David Alvarez, formerly a scholar in residence at the National Security Agency (NSA), used the collection in his paper "Behind Venona: American Signals Intelligence in the Early Cold War" published in the summer 1999 issue of Intelligence and National Security. According to National Archives officials, the collection in Record Group 38 was "erroneously released" and somehow accidentally slipped through declassification review. In 1997, the agency responsible for generating the records (presumably the NSA) had requested that the records be withdrawn. As custodian of the records, the National Archives (which has no independent declassification authority) had no choice but to comply with the agency request.

In the past, the NSA has adhered to a general policy of not declassifying documents dating from after the Japanese surrender in 1945 (the surrender, in effect, represents the boundary between an open period and a closed period for access to communications intelligence records). The closing of the records appears consistent with that general policy. According to Alvarez, before the surrender most of these types of records are open, but after the surrender "hardly anything has been declassified."

NARA officials reported that in principle, the records could be subject to re-review and may eventually be re-released in whole or in part. No time frame for any future document release from this special collection has been announced or is anticipated in the near future.

Bruce Craig