The indomitable Steven Aftergood at Federation of American Scientists reported last week that the National Archives and Records Administration has, well, lost nearly 2,000 boxes of classified documents:
More than a thousand boxes of classified government records are believed to be missing from the Washington National Records Center (WNRC) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a three-year Inspector General investigation found.
But there are no indications of theft or espionage, an official said.
An inventory of the holdings at the Records Center determined that 81 boxes containing Top Secret information or Restricted Data (nuclear weapons information) were missing. As of March 2011, an additional 1,540 boxes of material classified at the Secret or Confidential level also could not be located or accounted for, the Inspector General report on the matter said. Each box can hold approximately 1.1 cubic feet or 2000 to 2500 sheets of paper.
So that's probably between three or four million classified pages that have just gone missing. Whoops.
(An Anecdotal Aside: The Washington National Records Center is in Suitland, Maryland, just over the South-East border of DC. It's not a great part of town. I once called them to see about doing some research down there, and they basically told me that it would be in my best interest to find some way — any way — to avoid actually going out to their facility. I didn't get the feeling they were trying to keep secrets; it was more like they were trying to avoid any bad headlines, e.g. "SCIENCE HISTORIAN STABBED ON THE WAY TO THE ARCHIVES – WAS DEVOTED TO WORK, ECCENTRIC, SAY FRIENDS." But like all places with bad reputations, there is probably a little exaggeration for effect here. And strictly speaking, K Street and its environs probably transacts a much higher volume of illegal activity.)
So, what to make of this? The first thing is to just state the likely and boring explanation: these boxes are probably just sitting on a shelf in a government archive, somewhere. They were probably moved — or not moved when they were supposed to — and someone lost the tracking information, or entered it in incorrectly. Or checked the "feel free to burn these records or send them to the dump" checkbox by accident.
The tracking of this kind of historical data is still pretty low-tech, and I can speak from a little experience on this point. As part of a graduate fellowship I had with the Department of Energy awhile back (I was the "Edward Teller Graduate Fellow," a title which I relished), I helped them improve their internal holdings database, which is just a big Microsoft Access database. It's not a bad database, to be sure, but it isn't some super-advanced NSA creation, and it can be pretty cryptic when you are trying to figure out what they have and where they have it.
You remember that scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they "hide" the Ark of the Covenent in that giant government warehouse? It's not entirely far-fetched, though the NARA stacks that I've seen are a bit cleaner looking, and have lower ceilings.
Let's banish from our minds the idea that terrorists or criminals are somehow trucking around archival boxes. Doesn't happen. These things don't usually contain stuff that is that interesting to ne'er-do-wells. It takes a lot of work to find the occasional interesting document, take it from me. It's just far-fetched. Activists and journalists and maybe even an historian or two? It's been known to happen. But people who want to actually do bad things to the fellow man? I wouldn't bet on it.
That doesn't mean, of course, that these missing records are actually being stored correctly, or safely, or securely, or in the manner which is mandated by the law. But I seriously doubt there's any great matters of security at stake. Especially since, as Steven points out, most of that stuff is pretty old, and probably should have been reviewed and declassified a long time ago (which requires resources — money, time, will, etc.).
But this isn't likely a security problem. It's not necessarily even an organizational problem. It may just be a complexity problem. If you have enough records, you're going to lose track of a few of them.
How many is "a few"? It's actually a quantifiable number. The problem is known as inventory control: how much physical stuff (in this case, boxes full of paper) can you actually control at any given time? In various industries and contexts, studies have shown that losses and misplacements have real minimal limits. I don't know what they are for records of this sort — in controlled facilities — but every place has an unavoidable loss rate. This is the rate of things going missing that happens even if you have extremely advanced inventory control systems — sophisticated databases, tagged items, really elaborate systems of checking and re-checking inventory. Because there are fundamental limits on how much stuff any organization can actually keep track of.
The NARA College Park facility has at least 3,340 boxes of materials in Record Group 326 (Atomic Energy Commission) alone. This is just one agency, and a lot of that agency's files are still held at the Department of Energy archives in Germantown, or at other NARA facilities. (This count is taken from RG 326's Master Location Register, which, I might add, as I look it over again, has quite a few "item not on shelf during last inventory" notes in it, many for classified entries.)
So let's imagine that the unavoidable loss rate is something that feels quite low, like 1-2%. That's 33-66 boxes out of this one Record Group, many of which are classified to one degree or another. (Is the loss rate per year or a constant? I don't know, but either way, it adds up.) Let's imagine that the loss rate is higher than the unavoidable rate, because people are using these records, the organization is not as perfectly well-oiled a machine as possible, or the record-keeping is sloppier than it ideally could be. What if the loss rate is as high as 5%? That's 167 boxes.
Now multiply that across the entire organization, all of its records, all of its secrets. Quite a lot of boxes. So 1,540 boxes doesn't quite surprise me, nor does it look all that surprising that you'd run into that sort of problem.
I'm not trying to exculpate anybody. It isn't like this fact makes losing classified records right. But it does make it expected.
There's a nice quote about excessive secrecy from Michael Hayden, former chief of the CIA and NSA, which is reproduced in Dana Priest and William Arkin's Top Secret America:
"This is just a reflection of complexity, not any vice."
This jibes with my own feeling on the matter pretty well, and likely applies well to this specific case. This is what happens when you have billions of (physical) pages of classified information accumulated over the course of the last seventy years or so. You inevitably lose a few of them. And "a few" of a billion is a lot.
The only way to avoid losing track of thousands upon thousands of boxes of secrets on a regular basis is to not have as many secrets to lose track of.
If they had already declassified these boxes, it'd be a minor thing — the only people who'd be really upset are historians, and we all know how important a lobby they are. But they didn't, and now their loss is now a big, huge, ugly deal. Expect FBI involvement, expect Congressional hearings, expect a lot of man-hours spent tracking them down, expect a lot of finger-pointing and maybe even some finger-wagging.