Historical Advisory Committee Reports on Declassification Progress: State Department and National Archives Have Eliminated Backlogs

Allen Mikaelian, May 2014

The Historical Advisory Committee to the Department of State (HAC) has praised both the State Department’s Office of the Historian and the National Archives and Records Administration for making significant progress in eliminating backlogs from their areas of responsibility.

According to the HAC’s annual report, the Office of the Historian (HO) made “robust progress” in 2013 toward more timely publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. And the National Archives’ National Declassification Center (NDC) “exceeded the HAC’s expectations” by moving through a backlog of some 350 million pages by a December 31, 2013, deadline.

However, despite this progress, the HAC remains skeptical that the HO will be able to publish volumes covering the Nixon and Carter administrations within the required time frame. The HAC is also concerned about researcher access to declassified documents, and the report claims an “urgent need” for responsible agencies to rethink declassification guidelines, due to the fact that approximately 40 percent of the documents in the backlog will remain classified.

The FRUS book series is the main outlet for publication of official State Department documents and has often been criticized for leaving out significant portions of events, most particularly those that involve US covert activities. Since 1991, the department has been required by law to publish volumes no later than 30 years after the events they cover, and the HAC has been responsible for overseeing, advising on, and reporting on the series. The HO published seven volumes in 2013, including the long-delayed and highly problematic volume Congo, 1960–1968; the volume on the SALT II treaty; and five volumes covering the Carter administration.

But the HAC appears to be most enthusiastic about the rate of declassification of volumes achieved by the HO (10 volumes in 2013) and the fact that this rate has been sustained long enough to eliminate the backlog of 30 volumes that had been completed but not declassified. This bodes well, the HAC reports, for an increased rate of publication in future years and makes it possible to anticipate that 2014 will see the publication of a retrospective on Iran and Chile, 1969–1973. Like the volume on Congo, these volumes had to navigate significant issues pertaining to covert action.

The HAC maintains, as it has in past years, that there is a bottleneck at the High-Level Panel (HLP), a committee made up of representatives from the State Department, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency that reviews declassification of highly sensitive issues. Material referred to this panel is often delayed a year or more, according to the HAC. There have been encouraging signs of increased cooperation at this level, the annual report claims, but the sheer number of upcoming volumes that will require HLP resolution threatens to overwhelm the process.

Turning to the issues of declassification of documents for the National Archives, the HAC notes “with pleasure” that a significant backlog has been retired. A 2009 executive order (EO 13526) had mandated automatic declassification of any document older than 25 years (unless the classifying agency withheld it for a particular reason), and earlier HAC reports had expressed concern that a December 31, 2013, deadline would not be met for the millions of pages of documents delayed by problems with initial reviews. However, as noted by the HAC and the NDC, the 352 million pages that constituted the backlog have been processed.

Still, declassification does not necessarily mean the documents are as readily available as documents that were never classified or that have been declassified for some time. Regarding the backlog of 352 million pages, the NDC’s latest report (1.usa.gov/1mXZyiX) states that, as of December 31, 2013, some 130.3 million documents have been declassified and have completed all processing, and 77.3 million have been “released to the public.” However, these records may be subject to additional review for privacy concerns, and although researchers may request documents that require such review, they should be prepared for a wait of several months. Recently declassified records are unlikely to have finding aids or even catalog entries, but archivists have access to information about these records, and NARA encourages researchers to consult with an archivist about records that might be available but do not yet appear in the catalog. According to Megan Phillips, NARA’s external affairs liaison, “Historians do not need to wait passively for processing, but can actively request the records that they want to see.”

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

The entire HAC annual report can be read online at www.historians.org/2014-HAC.

Declassification in Past Issues of ­Perspectives on History.


Richard Immerman, Kenneth Osgood, and Carly Goodman, "A National Treasure at the Brink: Survey Highlights Historians' Love of, and Frustration with, the National Archives." April 2014.

Marian J. Barber, "Reinvigorating FRUS: The Historian's Office at the State Department and the Foreign Relations Series." March 2014.

Debbie Ann Doyle, "AHA Supports Release of Watergate Documents: Asks for Unsealing of Grand Jury Records Regarding US v. Liddy." January 2014.

Lee White, "Recasting Declassification: Agencies and Advisory Boards Seeking Public Input." January 2014.

Allen Mikaelian, "Historical Advisory Committee Reports on Declassification Bottlenecks." September 2013.

Lee White, "Transparency, Declassification, and the Obama Presidency." September 2012.