The Federal Agency Mandatory Declassification Effort: A Status Report
Bruce Craig, December 2005
From The Coalition Column of the December 2005 Perspectives
The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) of the National Archives and Records Administration has released a status report focusing on the federal government's ongoing effort to comply with provisions of a mandatory declassification program of federal agency records that is required under Executive Orders 12958 and 13292. The report, which was submitted to President Bush, indicates that most federal agencies are on track to meet the December 31, 2006, deadline. A handful of agencies may fail to meet the deadline and run the risk of triggering the automatic release of agency records should they be requested by a researcher.
The report states that an estimated 155 million pages of textual records await a variety of actions by agency personnel: declassification review, exemption from review because of the nature of the records, or referral to another agency. In accordance with provisions of Executive Orders 12958 and 13292, with a handful of exceptions (special media, such as microfilm, audiotapes, or motion pictures, for example, are not subject to automatic declassification until December 31, 2011), any records that are not acted upon by an agency by the deadline of December 31, 2006, would be declassified automatically.
Of the 74 executive-branch agencies that responded to ISOO's survey, 28 agencies (or 38 percent) assert they do not to possess any 25-year-old or older historically valuable documents. Of the remaining 46 agencies (62 percent), 22 stated they anticipate being prepared for the implementation of automatic declassification at the end of next year. These 22 agencies only account for 39 percent of the total number of pages identified as being subject to automatic declassification. The ISOO predicts that an additional eight agencies, which account for 59 percent of the total volume of records, will most likely be prepared to meet the deadline. However, for each of these eight agencies, there exists a large volume of material that has yet to be reviewed, with roughly 43 percent of their remaining records requiring some type of declassification action. The ISOO is also concerned that nine agencies may not be able to comply with the EO though their records represent only about 2–3 percent of the papers identified that are subject to automatic declassification.
The principle of the automatic declassification of historically valuable documents and records once they become 25 years old was originally mandated by President Clinton when he issued Executive Order 12958 in 1995. President Bush reaffirmed the principle in 2003 when he issued Executive Order 13292. To the pleasant surprise of government secrecy watchdog groups, Bush's order did not negate Clinton's EO outright, though it deferred the effective date to the end of 2006, in order to allow the agencies more time to assess their classified documents and prepare for their eventual release.
The ISOO remains confident, based upon its report, that the executive branch will, for the most part, fulfill its responsibilities under the automatic declassification program when it takes effect at the end of 2006.
The Library of Congress (LC) and the Smithsonian Institution have initiated efforts to assist cultural institutions and help document the aftermath of recent hurricanes. The LC has launched several programs to benefit libraries and museums while the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (NMAH) has begun to collect artifacts to document the hurricane's impact on the region.
The LC has started the Book Relief Project aimed at sending books to hurricane shelters and schools that are serving people displaced from their homes due to the storms. A list of all libraries that have been affected by the hurricanes has been developed and the information will be used to prepare an assistance action plan that is aimed to help in recovery efforts.
Additionally, the LC has gathered information regarding the recovery and preservation of water-damaged materials, which can be viewed online at www.loc.gov/preserv/. The library is also determining what preservation materials it can donate to help with the recovery effort, and has prepared a training course in disaster recovery and preservation techniques for librarians in the affected regions.
Finally, the LC's American Folklore Center is working to create an oral history project to document the experiences of hurricane survivors. Efforts are underway to train historians and other academics to collect oral histories for this project. The LC will also be donating tape recording equipment to the project. The library will assist in the development of a database and a recording archive so that this collection of oral histories will be usable by historians, journalists, and other researchers.
Not to be outdone by the LC, the Smithsonian's NMAH has also been working to document the hurricanes and their aftermath. To date, 17 objects have been collected for use in various Smithsonian museums: a cot from the Superdome, for example, will be part of a museum exhibit in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture while a curtain collected from a flooded house with layers of sediment illustrating the extent of the flood is likely to be displayed in other Smithsonian museums, including the NMAH. A total of 900 photographs have also been collected documenting the hurricane and its aftermath.
—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at email@example.com.