Recasting Declassification: Agencies and Advisory Boards Seeking Public Input
Lee White, January 2014
On December 29, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order (EO 13526) designed to dramatically change the way the executive branch handles classified material, to reduce overclassification, and to expedite the release of formerly classified materials to the public.
The president directed federal agencies to eliminate a 400-million-page backlog of materials awaiting declassification by December 31, 2013. Many of these records should have been automatically declassified by December 31, 2006, under EO 12958, issued by President Clinton in 1995 and amended by President Bush in 2003.
Obama’s executive order also established a National Declassification Center (NDC) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to serve as a clearinghouse and to coordinate among federal agencies the declassification of records of permanent historical value 25 years old and older. NARA does not have the authority to unilaterally declassify the classified records it holds. Rather, representatives of other agencies with an interest, or “equity,” in the records make the decisions about declassification. Only when the other agencies’ reviews are done can NARA begin the process of making records available to the public.
There has been plenty of speculation as to whether the December 31, 2013, deadline will be met. Even the NDC has raised questions in its past progress reports. At a recent meeting, NARA’s chief operating officer, William J. Bosanko, met with representatives of a variety of organizations with an interest in history, declassification, openness, and transparency as it applies to NARA. Mr. Bosanko indicated that the deadline, set for December 31, would likely not be met until late January or early February. Bosanko estimated that approximately 33 million documents remain to be processed, and that the NDC is working at a rate of 3 million pages per week.
As efforts to eliminate the backlog continue, a related long-standing question remains to be addressed: Given the vast amount of paper records, not to mention the tsunami of electronic records that have proliferated over the past decade, should historically significant topics be treated differently than other records? And if so, what processes should be used to identify and prioritize such records for expedited declassification?
Congress established the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) in 2000 to advise the president on national classification and declassification policy. The board is composed of nine individuals, five appointed by the president and four by the congressional leadership. The life of the board has been extended by Congress until 2014.
Since its founding, the PIDB has issued two comprehensive reports to the president. The first, Improving Declassification, published in 2007, noted that there was no satisfactory means of identifying historically significant information for review and declassification. It called 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.
The PIDB proposed that a board consisting of prominent historians, academics, and former government officials be appointed by the archivist of the United States to determine “which events or activities of the US Government should be considered historically significant from a national security and foreign policy standpoint for a particular year.” The report also recommended requiring that all departments and agencies with significant classification activity hire more in-house historians.
On October 31, 2008, 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 comprised of federal historians and another of nonfederal historians with an interest in intelligence and military records. It came as no surprise that no consensus was reached. Some felt prioritization was a fool’s errand and that records should be declassified chronologically. One historian recommended declassifying agency records “from the top down.” Another suggested “forward and top down.” One suggested the use of advisory panels comprised of members who understand how priorities may shift over time and must be constantly reassessed. Finally, one historian suggested a “historical marketplace” approach, more like a popularity contest, based on the number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and public requests for information.
In the end, no solution was forthcoming, and the NDC and federal agencies continued to slog through the backlog without a prioritization scheme in place.
In November 2012, the PIDB issued its second report to the president, entitled Transforming the Security Classification System. In language similar to its 2007 report, the PIDB once again called for the prioritization, preservation, and processing of historically significant records. The PIDB recommended 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.” The PIDB urged each agency to have in-house history staff to assist records officers and declassifiers in the prioritization of records.
On November 21, 2013, the PIDB held another public forum on the issue of prioritizing records for declassification. Once again, distinguished panels of agency and outside historians and researchers seemed to agree that some means of prioritization would be helpful, but there was no consensus on the best means to achieve it. Some suggested that an overemphasis on prioritization may have unintended consequences, especially in an era of limited resources. Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News pointed out, “A necessary consequence of prioritization of some records for declassification is thatother records will be pushed back in the queue. What this means is that, without remedial action, more and more records may never be declassified.”
The same day, the PIDB, on its Transforming Classification blog, invited the public to provide its recommendations for prioritization. The PIDB asked for comments in five broad categories: Topics 25 Years Old and Older, Topics 25 Years Old and Younger, Topics Related to Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) Information, General Topics of Interest, and Topics Specifically Gathered from Presidential Libraries. The comment period is open until mid-January; the blog can be found at blogs.archives.gov/transformingclassification. For example, some suggested topics in the 25 Years Old and Younger category include records related to 9/11, the Iraq surge, collapse of the USSR, Bosnia/Kosovo, the Dayton Accords, and the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.
What should be clear is that the federal government is crying out to the historical community for help in solving this dilemma. For the past five years, in two reports to the president and in public forums and blog posts, the PIDB has tried to advocate for historians and their interests.
In addition, Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH) has introduced the Preserving American Access to Information Act (S. 1464), which will, among other things, require federal agencies to identify and designate historically valuable records as soon as possible after their creation to ensure their preservation and future accessibility. It also extends authority for the PIDB until December 31, 2018.
Excuse the lingering JFK assassination anniversary hangover, but this is clearly a moment for historians and other stakeholders to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. In fact, the JFK Assassination Review Board is a perfect example of how records associated with a single historical event can be successfully targeted for declassification.
The National Coalition for History, with its diverse membership, is ideally suited and in fact exists to fill just this sort of vacuum. NCH is in discussions with the National Declassification Center and the PIDB not only to assist in identifying historically significant records for prioritized declassification, but also to determine how we can help them solve the systemic issues that caused the problem to begin with.
—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.