WASHINGTON - The man entrusted with America’s documentary heritage - including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - learned the value of book collections in a North Beverly, Mass., flower shop called Conte’s.
The shop doubled as the town’s library. Two shelves nestled among the lilies and roses represented the entire book selection. “I can still remember sitting on the floor surrounded by flowers and choosing the books I was going to read,’’ said David Ferriero.
Ferriero now directs the National Archives in Washington, the first librarian to hold the post of official “collector in chief.’’ He not only oversees 12 billion pages and 40 million photographs that tell America’s story, he referees release of America’s oldest secrets, from the formula for invisible ink to battle plans for the Spanish-American War.
He favors openness, he says, but agencies cling to a maze of often-contradictory secrecy rules and a deep-seated culture to lock away even innocuous information. “While progress has been made,’’ Ferriero said, “we still have a huge problem.’’
Ferriero’s primary job is ensuring the 275 executive branch agencies retain the most important government records for posterity. But he also oversees the National Declassification Center, created by President Obama by executive order in 2009. That makes him point man for an aggressive effort to try to release, by the end of next year, a backlog of an estimated 400 million records that are more than 25 years old.
It is a Herculean task that open government advocates complain will probably take many years. Of the 400 million-document backlog, Ferriero reports, about 125 million documents have been inventoried but only 26 million have been fully reviewed and processed. Of those, meanwhile, nearly 10 percent will remain secret on national security grounds.
Opening sealed government files to public scrutiny requires navigating a bureaucratic quagmire of Kafkaesque proportions.
“There is something like 2,500 separate classification guides in operation now in the US government,’’ Ferriero said. “What’s secret in one agency may not be secret in another.’’
He recently won a symbolic victory when the CIA relented after years of denying researchers’ requests for six “secret’’ formulas for invisible ink, a tool of American spy craft during World War I.
“The reason they caved was because the National Declassification Center staff discovered that the formulas had actually been published in 1931,’’ Ferriero recounts with a hint of exasperation. “The way they found them? Google Books.’’
As a Northeastern University co-op student in 1965, Ferriero, a graduate of Beverly High School, found himself working among dusty tomes and collections of old manuscripts in the MIT library. He ended up staying more than 30 years, interrupted by a tour as a hospital corpsman with the Marines in the Vietnam War. He later became chief librarian at Duke University and then as Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Library. The Senate confirmed him in November 2009 as archivist of the United States after his nomination by Obama.
His government job carries a wide range of duties. An example: he is responsible for safeguarding America’s most precious documents - the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - in the event of a national emergency. (There is a detailed plan for whisking the documents to safety, but it is, well, secret.)
The most difficult work, said Ferriero, is attempting to change the culture of secrecy in certain corners of government. He and his staff, who do not have the authority to release secret information on their own, are prioritizing the backlog of documents to be reviewed by archives staff and individual agencies.
Among the most sought-after files are documents relating to the assassination of President Kennedy, the CIA, and the National Security Council. Many more, including the records of military commands, NASA, the FBI, and files from the Watergate investigation, are also “high interest’’ but “difficult to process’’ because they have to be scrubbed of any sensitive information and to protect people’s privacy. Some former insiders are critical of the slow pace at which decades-old information is being released and call it testament to a dysfunctional process.
J. William Leonard, the former overseer of the classification system, said the agencies that Ferriero must cajole will continue to hold sway until the Archives has more staff and resources to review the documents.
“We are afraid of history,’’ said Leonard, who oversaw the Pentagon’s classification procedures before serving as director of the National Archives’ Information and Security Oversight Office. “Our knowledge of our history is imperfect, imprecise, but written as if it isn’t.’’
The Archives this year is requesting about $380 million for its operations, slightly down from last year.
“Its budget is declining,’’ said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “What they have accomplished doesn’t come close to fulfilling the president’s instruction. It looks now like that goal will not be met.’’
Ferriero said one goal is to digitize the billions of records that are on the shelves. He estimates that less than 1 percent is in electronic form. Another major challenge is ensuring that in the digital age government records - e-mails, computer files, and the trillions of electrons that have replaced onion skin and typewriters - are not lost or destroyed.
Then he has to deal, as best he can, with the conspiracy theories, which, due in large part to Hollywood, are constantly swirling. The desire for more raw information encompasses 50,000 pages of documents related to the assassination of Kennedy that are still secret and are not expected to be released for at least another five years.
“When we launched the declassification center,’’ Ferriero said, “I hosted two open forums . . . to get some sense from the user community about what records they were looking for. They were exactly the same. This side of the room was Kennedy assassination conspiracy, this side of the room was UFOs.’’
He was better prepared than most on the question of unidentified flying objects.
“When I was at MIT,’’ he said, “we had a file where we kept strange correspondence. The largest number of questions was on UFOs because at some point an article had been published about this saucer crash in Roswell and the aliens and parts of the spacecraft were supposedly sent to MIT for analysis. We got a tremendous number of letters every week about UFOs.’’Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.