Publication Date

December 1, 2008



PIDB Grapples with Prioritization for Declassification of “Historically Significant” Records

Almost a year ago, Public Interest Declassification Board released its first report,Improving Declassification, to the president, providing recommendations for improving the federal government’s declassification system. Among the recommendations was one urging development of a system for prioritizing the government’s declassification efforts to ensure a greater focus on “historically significant” records, especially presidential records, with greater involvement of historians and historical advisory panels in setting these priorities.

On October 31, the PIDB held a public meeting to address the thorny issue of what constituted “historically significant” records and how to prioritize their declassification.

The PIDB heard from two panels. One was made up of federal historians and the other from non-federal historians with an interest in intelligence and military records.

Marc Susser, the historian of the State Department led off the federal historians panel. Susser noted that the Foreign Relations of the United States volumes were generally completed chronologically. Susser felt that using the concept of “historically significant” for prioritization would not be an efficient use of scarce resources since it would be difficult for stakeholders to agree on what met the criteria.

Michael Warner, historian in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that his advice would be to start at the top of the agency and work downward. In other words, to look at the mission of the agency and then evaluate how the agency used its resources to carry out that mission. Once an agency’s utilization of its resources was assessed, one could focus on those records. He stated that a year-by-year approach used by the State Department might not be practical and could be uneconomical at other agencies. Warner stated that very skilled people were needed to perform declassification and there is a scarcity of records managers with that skill set. In addition, one would need historians at the PhD level to work collegially with the records managers to identify historically significant records.

Richard Davis of the U.S. Army Center of Military History said historians seeking material for books and articles actually pushed declassification. He urged historians be given better “roadmaps” to navigate the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. Davis stated that he thought the U.S. Army did not take its records-keeping responsibilities seriously and that there was no enforcement oversight built into the system. Davis cited recent cases from Iraq and Afghanistan where nearly half of the units returning had kept no records at all. He noted that units often just purge the hard drives of their computers. In addition, Davis said that those units that do keep records do not bother to categorize them, making it difficult for archivists to sort through the material.

Nancy Tucker, historian at Georgetown University, led off the nongovernmental historians panel. Tucker stated that prioritization of declassification is necessary, but it will be controversial in the historical community. One innate concern is about who gets to decide what is important, so it is critical that historians be given a role in the prioritization process. She also declared that priorities can change over time. As a result there would have to be a regular review of both priority and non-priority topics. Tucker stated that her own priority would be national security and intelligence.

Robert Wampler, a research fellow at the National Security Archive, was the next to testify. He gave the simple advice that prioritization should be “forward and top down.” He noted that declassification delays in processing military records and at the various presidential libraries were both problem areas and should be priorities. He thought it important that there be a legislative mandate on declassification.

Martin Sherwin, professor of history at George Mason University, noted that prioritization would always relate to a particular historian’s area of interest. He suggested turning to the “historical marketplace,” as one means of prioritization. Sherwin suggested that FOIA requests be given top priority and that the FOIA system should be better integrated into the declassification process. Sherwin suggested the creation of a “historical Google” electronic records system that would allow users to scan for keywords and phrases.

Ronald Spector of George Washington University was the final speaker. He said he supported the idea of a panel to aid in prioritization but that it needed to be broadbased. It should include journalists, political scientists, natural scientists, and not only historians that specialize in national security and intelligence, but also social and other types of historians. Spector suggested that panelists not be totally reliant on records managers from the agencies and that panel members should be given security clearance. Spector stated that years of overclassification contributed to the current backlog and that this issue needed to be addressed going forward.

The Public Interest Declassification Board is an advisory committee established by Congress in order to promote the fullest possible public access to the documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities. Created in 2000 (Public Law 106-567), Congress appropriated funds for the Board’s operations in late 2005, allowing it to meet for the first time in February 2006.

Federal Court Orders White House to Produce E-Mails

On November 10, 2008, a federal court ruled that the National Security Archive and Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) may proceed with their effort to force the White House to recover millions of Bush Administration Executive Office of the President (EOP) e-mail records before the presidential transition.

Rejecting the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Court ruled that the Federal Records Act permits a private plaintiff to bring suit to require the head of the EOP or the Archivist of the United States to notify Congress or to ask the Attorney General to initiate action to recover destroyed or missing e-mail records.

This is the latest development in lawsuits filed by the National Security Archive (NSA) and CREW against the Executive Office of the President (EOP), including the White House Office of Administration (OA), and the National Archives and Records Administration. The two groups are seeking the recovery and preservation of millions of e-mail messages that were apparently deleted from White House computers between March 2003 and October 2005.

The National Security Archive originally filed its case in September 2007. A subsequent lawsuit filed by CREW was consolidated with the National Security Archive’s lawsuit.

— is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.

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