Secret files missing at National Archives
The National Archives and Records Administration has lost track of dozens of boxes of confidential and secret government files at its records center just outside of Washington, the latest in a series of such incidents spanning more than a decade.
The missing classified materials include four boxes of top-secret restricted files from the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as records from several U.S. Navy offices, documents obtained by The Washington Times show.
The problems came to light after a three-year investigation by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Office of Inspector General. While the investigation ended last year, officials recently provided a copy of the report on their findings in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
It’s not the first time the inspector general's office has raised concerns about missing files at the Washington National Records Center. According to the report, the office conducted previous inventories of classified materials in 1998 and 2004, concluding that boxes were missing during both of those searches.
“According to those staffers that can recall, minimal corrective actions were taken,” the inspector general's office noted in the report on its most recent investigation.
NARA officials say they cooperated with investigators and insist there is no indication that any of the boxes were stolen. Instead, they blame the problems on “bad data” for a tiny fraction of the millions of boxes stored in the Washington National Records Center, where 250,000 boxes enter the Suitland facility each year.
“While it’s troubling that there are boxes of top-secret and confidential materials missing, it’s not entirely unexpected considering the sheer volume of data the National Archives and Records Center is responsible for storing and protecting,” he said.
“The report raises some issues of careless handling and filing of materials that certainly deserve the attention of the administration. However, these problems also raise bigger questions of how recent budget cuts and staffing reductions have affected the ability of the National Archives to do its job effectively.”
NARA, the nation’s official record keeper, does not own the facility where the records are stored, instead leasing the property from the General Services Administration. Likewise, the boxes, which are stored in row after row of high shelves in rooms twice the size of football fields at the facility, do not belong to NARA, either. The agency acts as the custodian and stores the boxes temporarily until they’re either destroyed or turned over for permanent placement in the National Archives.
William J. Bosanko, appointed last year as NARA’s Executive For Agency Services, said officials are continuing what he called a “very aggressive search” for boxes reported missing in the inspector general’s investigation.
Mr. Bosanko said one measure officials think will result in better tracking is the bar coding of boxes as they come in and out of the records center. Previously, he said, paper tracking slips, which could detach from boxes and fall off shelves, could result in a box reported as missing when it is still in the records center.
Another problem he cited is the fact that agencies sometimes have asked for boxes to be returned, only to later send them back to NARA in different boxes with different so-called “accession numbers,” which are used to track the materials.
In addition, Mr. Bosanko said, tracking information can be lost as boxes age or sustain damage. He said the records center is an aging building that’s had troubles with leaks over the years, as well as sustaining damage from an earthquake last year. Officials are working to replace the building, he said.
He said it’s too early to say whether problems will surface in future audits and investigations. Records show that a similar investigation had been under way reviewing unclassified materials held at the Suitland facility.
“It’s a process that’s going to have to be played out,” he said.
Congress was on notice about the missing records months ago. In a semiannual report to Congress last year, the inspector general's office told lawmakers that 80 boxes of top-secret and restricted materials were missing.
“This investigation was closed subject to continuing updates regarding the recovery of remaining material,” the inspector general told Congress.
The agencies listed in the report were the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Export Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency as well as four components of the U.S. Navy. Each of the agencies was notified. The report did not say when the records were compiled.
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