Photo courtesy of the National Reconnaissance Office
Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information” and its two predecessors established specific, time-based declassification requirements for all national security agencies. Despite these identical mandates, a Government-wide approach to declassification remains elusive. Separate agency declassification programs evolved into a segmented declassification system where each agency reviewed its information and attempted to identify any classified information created by other agencies. Agencies are required to perform the same tasks, such as completing automatic, systematic, and mandatory declassification reviews, yet their design and implementation of these requirements are disintegrated and lack interoperability, resulting in inefficient inter-agency coordination.. The declassification system has become increasingly inefficient and complex. Accordingly, the public has become increasingly frustrated and confused by what it encounters when trying to navigate the labyrinth of agency programs.
Declassification performs a service crucial to democratic society, informing citizens and promoting responsible dialogue between the public and Government. There are significant policy benefits from declassification that can aid national security decisions and diplomacy. Declassification is a valuable information sharing tool, particularly when information holders must partner with stakeholders outside the intelligence and defense communities. Information may be the newest and most important policy tool of the modern era, with declassification during operations offering a strategic advantage. Public release not only makes policymakers accountable for their decisions and actions; it also affords agencies the opportunity to correct misinformation in the public domain and bolster their position in current debates.
One of the main recommendations found in the Board’s 2008 Report to the President on Improving Declassification included the recommendation of creating a center dedicated to declassification. The center would focus not only on processing the huge paper backlog of records at the National Archives, but would also work to improve the declassification system across government to make it more efficient and effective for users. The result of this recommendation was the establishment of the National Declassification Center, which has accomplished a great deal in tackling the immense 366 million page backlog of records. However, many documents still await declassification review. The NDC’s efforts are often stymied by the needlessly redundant and burdensome referral process, as well as the refusal by agencies to appropriately manage risk.
For these reasons, the Board recommends the President bolster the authority and capacity of the National Declassification Center with specific measures to advance a government-wide declassification strategy.
Specifically, Executive Order 13526 should be amended to eliminate the additional three years now permitted for review of multiple agency equities in all archival records (including those stored outside the NDC). The requirement of agencies to share declassification guidance with other classifying agencies and the NDC should be strengthened. Retention of agency declassification authority should be contingent upon sharing agency guidance. The President should direct Agencies to consult the NDC before prioritizing their records for declassification and transfer to the National Archives. The Interagency National Declassification Center Advisory Panel (NAP) should have representation from the public, including representation from the Government Openness advocacy community. An inter-agency effort to develop new declassification review processes should be coordinated by the NDC and be based on a risk management approach.
Without dramatic improvement in the declassification process, the rate at which classified records are being created will drive an exponential growth in the archival backlog of classified records awaiting declassification, and public access to the nation’s history will deteriorate further. It is am imperative that the NDC continue its leading role in working with agencies and the public to collaboratively look for new technological solutions, rooted in updated policies and practices, that tackle the growing volumes of information, particularly digital information, that await declassification review.
Photograph courtesy of the National Archives