From The Coalition Column in the January 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

Updates on Declassification, the Georgia Archives, and the New Congress

Lee White, January 2013

On December 6, 2012, the Public Interest Declassification Board submitted its recommendations to the president on Transforming the Security Classification System. The board created the report in response to the president's request, in Executive Order 13526, for assistance in identifying potential solutions for classification and declassification challenges in the digital age and producing a vision for a new system. 

The PIDB is an advisory committee established by Congress to promote public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities. The board made 14 specific recommendations in four broad categories: classification, declassification, technology, and managing historically significant records (read the full report).

The PIDB concluded that the current processes and policies for classifying and declassifying information need to undergo a complete overhaul: "The current system, created seventy years ago, is outdated and incapable of dealing adequately with the large volumes of classified information generated in an era of digital communications and information systems." The board recommended the secrecy system be streamlined and better aligned with safeguarding practices and less information should be classified overall. They also felt that there needs to be a better balance between what is classified and what is available to the American public.

The PIDB called on the president to aggressively take the lead in reforming the classification system: "Overcoming entrenched practices that no longer serve the purpose of protecting our national security will prove difficult. We believe it will require a White House-led steering committee to drive reform, led by a chair that is carefully selected and appointed with specific authorities that you grant."
Of particular interest to historians is the recommendation concerning the prioritization of the preservation and processing of "historically significant records." The PIDB suggested that these records "should be identified and set aside as early as possible after their creation to ensure their preservation, long-term access and availability to agency policymakers and histo­rians. Each agency should have an in-house history staff to assist agency records officers and declassifiers in the pri­oritization of records."

Through the use of existing tech­nologies, including data tagging, the PIDB recommended historically significant records should be prepositioned for review and timely public release. The board felt selection of these records should reflect a reasoned judgment as to what information will be of the most interest to the public or future policymakers. The board stated, "Expedited access to these historical records will aid poli­cymakers in retrieving the documentary records of past policy decisions, lending context to contemporary deci­sion-making while cataloging valuable information for future analysis and public release. Such material not only informs public discussion of historical decisions and policies, but is also intrinsically important in document­ing the Government's national security history."

Georgia State Archivesto Remain Open

Following up on a story we reported in the fall, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced in October that the state will restore funding to keep the Georgia State Archives open until the end of the state's fiscal year on June 30, 2013. This agreement also allows the archive to retain its current hours of operation, which had been slated to be severely curtailed.

Under the plan, the University System of Georgia will assume control of the Georgia Archives on July 1, 2013, pending approval of the state's General Assembly. Existing archival staff will be supplemented by staff from the University System. The Secretary of State eliminated seven of the 10 positions at the state archives on November 1.

The crisis was precipitated in September when Secretary of State Kemp announced he was closing the state archives to the public on November 1 due to across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Governor Deal to close budget shortfalls.

On September 21, the National Coalition for History (NCH), the American Historical Association, and other constituent groups sent letters to the Governor opposing the budget cuts and denial of access to the archives. Public pressure put on the governor by archivists, historians and other stakeholders clearly motivated Deal's commitment to keep the archives open. It also generated tremendous media attention, including articles in the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The situation in Georgia should be a cautionary tale for all historians. As we've seen at the federal level, historical, archival, educational and preservation programs have increasingly been seen as easy targets by budget cutters because they are perceived as not having a broad constituency. Our community must remain vigilant and proactive in making the case that historical and archival programs are a public necessity, not a luxury.

Election Portends Changes for National Archives

On November 6, voters retained the current balance of power in Washington. Republicans retained control of the House (234-201), albeit with the loss of a handful of seats, and of course President Obama was re-elected. Democrats retained control of the Senate and saw their margin increased by two seats, to 55-45. This includes independent Senator Sanders of Vermont and Senator-Elect Angus King of Maine, who have said they will caucus with the Democrats.

The post-election period is critical as the jockeying for assignments to prime committees, and the selection of subcommittee chairs and ranking members, takes place within each party's caucuses. Who fills these slots has a great bearing on what will take place in the next two years.
At this point, most predictions as to who will end up where are speculative at best. However, we do know that there will be major changes in the committees that fund and oversee the National Archives and National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

In the Senate, with the retirement of Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) will assume the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees NARA and the NHPRC. Carper has chaired the subcommittee for several years and had been a strong advocate for their programs.

Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-Me.), also generally positively disposed toward NARA, will be replaced by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) who has gained a reputation as the most aggressive budget cutter in the U.S. Senate. Coburn, who is a physician, has earned the nickname "Dr. No" for his zealous attempts to reign in federal spending and has already demonstrated his disdain for humanities programs. For example, in 2010 the Senate rejected an amendment by Senator Coburn that would have eliminated funding for the political science program at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

On the House side, Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government announced, after she had been re-elected, that she was resigning to become CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Her loss will be deeply felt since she has been a moderate voice in comparison to many of her Tea Party colleagues and has been as supportive of funding for NARA and the NHPRC as possible. It is unknown at this time who will replace her.

We will have further updates on changes in the key players once the 113th Congress convenes in January.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycolaition.org.