Publication Date

September 1, 1997

Declassification at the National Archives and Records Administration

I read with interest the article by Warren Kimball on declassification, and the various responses from readers of Perspectives (February 1997, 9; May/June 1997, 41-43). Declassification of the records of our recent past has long been an issue for historians, and Executive Order 12958 has started a new round of activity and controversy. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is playing a major role in the implementation of E.O. 12958, and I would like to take this opportunity to inform AHA members about NARA’s activities.

Implementation of E.O. 12958 and the subsequent making available for research of the declassified records is a major access initiative for NARA and for the government as a whole. NARA's mission is to ensure ready access to essential documentary evidence for citizens and federal officials. Our strategic plan calls for us to expand opportunities for access, and one of the ways we are doing that is by engaging in extensive cooperative efforts with other agencies and investigating new methods to improve the declassification process. Stilt the task remains a formidable one.

One of our most significant problems is the declassification of the materials in presidential libraries. These materials are possibly the ones most sought after by historians, yet their declassification poses major difficulties. Presidential libraries contain very sensitive information at the highest policy-making level. Information of this type is not susceptible to review by NARA staff using agency declassification guidelines. Declassification determinations on this type of information must be made by the agencies concerned. However, the logistics of requiring NARA staff to send all the materials to Washington for review or the agencies to send reviewers to each of the libraries makes such an approach impractical.

To solve this problem, NARA has been working with a number of agencies to develop a program called the Remote Archives Capture Project. Through this project, those documents that cannot be declassified by library personnel using agency guidelines are scanned and brought to Washington for distribution to the appropriate agencies for review. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has volunteered to be a clearinghouse for the distribution of the scanned images and for consolidation of the results for return to the libraries. Eventually the libraries will receive the declassified documents in electronic form. Successful pilots have been run at the Johnson and Kennedy Libraries, and we are now planning to expand the project to more libraries and to involve more agencies in the program.

NARA staff also are making significant progress to reduce the enormous backlog of classified records in our Washington, D.C., area holdings. From October 1995, when the executive order went into effect, through the end of May 1997, we released almost 159 million pages of previously classified records. In addition, we are providing assistance to a number of agencies who are reviewing their own records at NARA. The Department of State, Department of Energy, Air Force, and Navy all have teams of reviewers at NARA. Other agencies such as the Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency make visits as needed. Together these agencies have declassified another 37 million pages.

Although much initial progress has been made, the declassification process at NARA involves a careful balancing of limited resources and user needs to achieve the goals of the executive order. First, we must ensure that every series of classified records is surveyed so that no still-sensitive records are automatically declassified in April 2000. Through a survey, we can examine the records in sufficient detail to locate any potential sensitivities. Sensitive records are set aside for a later page-by-page review. When the survey reveals no sensitive information, the records are declassified.

Second, we must provide logistical assistance and guidance in archival practice to agency reviewers at NARA. NARA encourages agencies to review their own records at NARA and has committed to providing as much assistance as possible within our resources. Our staff assist agency reviewers with access to the stacks, locating records, and proper handling of archival documents. They also inform agencies of their equities found in other agency records and maintain records of review progress to ensure that the activities of all the various agencies are coordinated so that records do not slip through the cracks.

Third, and by no means the lowest priority, NARA staff process for release records reviewed by the agencies. Agency reviewers identify, but do not withdraw, documents that cannot be released. NARA staff follow up the agency review by withdrawing still-sensitive documents and inserting withdrawal notices in the files. This allows us to maintain the necessary records that will enable us to return documents to their original places in the files when they are eventually declassified.

These activities require careful balancing among the need to ensure that all eligible records are reviewed to prevent inadvertent release of sensitive information through automatic declassification, the need to provide timely assistance to agency reviewers, and the desires of researchers to have access to records that have been reviewed by agencies but require processing for release by NARA staff. These demands will continue to increase as more agencies establish a review presence at NARA, as NARA accessions more records that have been reviewed by the agencies prior to transfer, and as the deadline for automatic declassification approaches.

To meet these needs, we continue to look for ways to improve the declassification process. For example, we have recently integrated declassification into the accessioning process as part of our life cycle approach to the management of federal records. Previously, declassification took place after accessioning was completed. It was performed by a different staff who did not have access to the information about the records and their contents developed by the accessioning archivist. By integrating the two processes, we are able to devote more staff resources to declassification and eliminate redundant effort, thereby making records available sooner.

NARA staff have made a tremendous effort toward implementing E.O. 12958, and the results, 159 million pages in 18 months, speak for themselves. I am proud of what NARA has been able to accomplish. The continuity of government, its accountability, and public faith in its credibility depend in no small part on our ability to provide ready access to essential evidence. While we recognize the need to protect national security interests and personal privacy rights, NARA is committed to implementing E.O. 12958 and advocating, in the public interest, the proper classification and declassification of records.

John Carlin is the Archivist of the United States

More on "Classified!"

Bryan Siebert's "Energetic Declassification" (Perspectives, May/June 1997) reports two significant developments by the Department of Energy (DOE) in its declassification effort. One is that the agency has chosen to treat Restricted Data (RD) as if it were subject to Executive Order (E.O.) 12958 and has adopted as its goal the targets therein that a certain percentage of records be declassified each year until the automatic declassification provisions go into effect in April 2000. (E.O. 12958 only applies to National Security Information, or NSI; RD and Formerly Restricted Data are expressly exempted from its operation.) The second is that for the first time ever the agency is declassifying more pages than it is classifying. As important as these developments are, however, several further points need to be made to give an accurate picture exactly where the DOE stands in this area.

It must be noted at the outset that the volume of permanent pre-1975 classified records is so large that it would take decades at the current rate of progress to review them all. In 1995, the DOE estimated that it holds about 3.2 million cubic feet of unclassified and classified textual records (textual records are paper records and do not include photographs, films, and electronic records).1 As difficult as it may be to comprehend, this translates to 8 billion pages.2 The portion thereof consisting of permanent pre-1975 classified records subject to E.O. 12958 is unknown, but must total several hundred million pages at the least. Moreover, the DOE has huge numbers of unscheduled records, of which some are pre-1975 classified records which undoubtedly should be scheduled as permanent.3 If these records are added to the total (as they should be), the number of records subject to E.O. 12958 is even larger.

What is the DOE doing with this huge mountain of paper? Unfortunately, it cannot automatically declassify any of it. Since the vast majority of records contain both NSI and RD, and because RD is not subject to E.O. 12958, and also because of the express prohibition in the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996, none of these records can be automatically declassified. The latter authority even prohibits the automatic declassification of the records containing solely NSI. The result of course, is that the DOE has to conduct a detailed and time-consuming review before declassifying anything.

The number of pages declassified in the last three years is impressive when compared to previous years. However, numbers include not only permanent pre-1975 classified records declassified pursuant to systematic review, but also permanent post-1974 classified records and classified unscheduled and temporary records declassified for litigation, patent applications, special projects, and other purposes. Moreover, there are large numbers of critical top-level records that have not been reviewed and probably will not be for many years. For example, there has been virtually no review of the files of the directors and other senior officials of Livermore and Los Alamos. Many records of the commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission also remain unreviewed. As with any agency that does not have the resources to review all of its records, the DOE must concentrate on the records of the top-level officials and the advisory groups thereto. Only these records contain information on the full range of issues dealt with and how and why specific policies were adopted or rejected. In short, the DOE still has a huge task ahead of it.

What should the DOE do? The agency needs to obtain more resources for its declassification effort, but these are unlikely to be forthcoming in this era of tight budgets. One feasible option, however, is to create the independent oversight committee recommended by Warren Kimball in his response to "Energetic Declassification." Such a committee, with the proper mandate and resources, could provide the monitoring and guidance to ensure that the scarce resources of the agency are best used in its declassification effort.

James E. David
Department of Space History
National Air and Space Museum


1.Human Radiation Experiments: The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records (Department of Energy/EH-0445, February 1995), 7

2. The standard used by the National Archives and others is that there are 2,500 pages in one cubic foot of records.

3. For example, the Washington National Records Center (the Federal records center for the Washington, D.C., area) contains over 25 million pages of unscheduled records of the DOE and its predecessors. A good overview of DOE’s records management problems, including those of unscheduled records, can be found in DOE Management: Better Planning Needed to Correct Records Management Problems (General Accounting Office/RCED-92-88, May 1992).

The Last Word…?

We appreciate Warren Kimball's remarks in the May/June issue of Perspectives that the Department of Energy has a healthy and positive commitment to open historical records to the American public. Mr. Kimball further recommends that the department create an “independent” committee to provide oversight. Approximately one year ago, the department established an Openness Advisory Panel composed of 12 outside experts appointed by the Secretary of Energy. The experts represent a broad range of citizens including historians, scientists, arms control advocates, and academia. A large majority of the experts have security clearances.

In addition to providing oversight of opening records to the public and setting priorities for declassification, the panel is charged to advise the Secretary of Energy with regard to measures to ensure that the department remains responsive to public policy needs and continues to foster trust with the American public and the Congress.

A. Bryan Siebert
Office of Declassification
Office of Security Affairs
Department of Energy

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