Archivist of the U.S. Reports on Progress of Declassification

Bruce Craig, November 2006

In a meeting with representatives of the research community in September 2006, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein reported on the progress being made in the effort to implement the National Declassification Initiative (NDI), a new set of policies, declassification practices, procedures, and the organizational structure believed to be needed to create a more reliable executive branch-wide declassification program for federal records. The archivist said, "When we last met in April, I promised that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) would act swiftly and responsibly to begin to address the very serious challenges that we face in coordinating with other federal agencies in the realm of declassification." Weinstein stated that effort is now being implemented.

The new NARA initiative was conceived in response to an April 2006 audit report by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) entitled "Withdrawal of Records from Public Access at the National Archives and Records Administration for Classification Purposes." Weinstein explained the objectives, milestones, and progress to date for the initiative that the archivist hopes will serve as the catalyst for declassification reform among federal agencies.

During the meeting that brought together representatives of the National Coalition for History, the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Federation of American Scientists, and several other groups, Weinstein explained how the program would establish a better means for managing referrals of classified equities between executive branch agencies. In addition to the NDI, the meeting included a briefing on the National Archives program for handling the systematic declassification of presidential records called the Remote Archives Capture Project. The archivist explained that all federal agencies are being encouraged to participate in and support both of these declassification initiatives.

As envisioned, the new NDI program will: reduce redundancies in declassification review, promote accurate and consistent declassification decisions, improve equity recognition across the declassification community, develop centralized priorities and management controls around the priorities, and make the declassification process more transparent to the public. In order to realize that goal, an interagency executive steering group has been established.

Weinstein reported that the steering group met on August 28, 2006, when representatives of the 12 executive branch agencies with major declassification responsibilities discussed various strategies required to ensure the NDI’s success. The archivist stated that in subsequent meetings, the executive steering group will develop and implement detailed work plans designed to ensure that agency equities are referred and resolved to allow the maximum feasible declassification. In addition, the steering group will focus on ensuring that common referral standards are developed, redundancies are reduced, and that records are adequately reviewed for declassification so that only information that must be retained for national security purposes is withheld.

The archivist also gave the group of researchers a status report on specific audit items. Weinstein stressed that since the ISOO audit report was issued, notwithstanding the ongoing Department of Energy document review pursuant to the Kyle-Lott Amendment (in which materials relating to atomic energy and weaponry are being re-reviewed), the practice of withdrawal of documents from the open shelves has been "stopped in its tracks." Weinstein declared that "withdrawals are extremely rare" now, and in order for an agency to do so it "must demonstrate a compelling case." He stated that only seven new documents had been withdrawn in that last four months and that "all of these withdrawals have been carefully noted in the opened files so that their removal is transparent to researchers and all have been handled in accordance with the audit protocol." One of the documents (from the Truman Library) has been declassified and is now back on the shelf and agency decisions are still pending on the other items that originated from the Carter presidential library.

As a result of the findings of the ISOO audit, the archivist stated that he requested that agencies do another re-review of the documents withdrawn during the first re-review. This effort is continuing and the National Archives expects the vast majority of records withdrawn to be restored to public access over the next several months. For example, at the end of their work, the Air Force expects that 95 percent of its records under re-review will be released in full or in a redacted form. By way of another example, the CIA is re-reviewing 55 boxes of State Department records and expects to release in full 85 percent of its records; release in redacted form 10 percent; and withhold 5 percent. Additional collections will likewise be reviewed for return to the open shelves. "We regard this as encouraging news and plan to continue to hold our feet to the fire to ensure that there is no backsliding," added the archivist.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.