At the recent conference on the Berlin Wall, the Director of the National Declassification Center (NDC) announced that the NDC completed the quality assurance review of the nearly 352 million pages that constitute the backlog of classified Federal records in the custody of the National Archives. The backlog was a result of previous reviews of poor quality conducted under the automatic declassification provisions established in 1995. Errors made during those reviews precluded public access. The President directed agencies in his 2009 Implementing Memorandum to review these records by the end of 2013. During this review, the NDC used a sampling methodology that focused on identifying information missed in prior reviews concerning the identity of human intelligence sources and key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction. The completion of this quality assurance review is a major step in making these records available. The PIDB congratulates the National Archives, the NDC staff, and the staff from all agencies who participated in the exceptional task of reviewing these records. This is a historic accomplishment worthy of recognition.
The mission of the NDC is “to advance the declassification and public release of historically valuable permanent records while maintaining national security.” In creating the NDC in 2009, the President directed agencies to work more collaboratively with each other, streamline processes, improve quality, and develop standardized training to achieve this goal. Conducting the quality assurance review of the backlog and implementing new processes to keep new backlogs from forming are two critical steps forward as the NDC works with agencies to improve declassification at the National Archives and across Government. We salute your efforts thus far.
The PIDB, the NDC, agencies and the public recognize that challenges and impediments remain. There is still critical work needed to address persisting problems that inhibit public access to these historically significant records. Agencies continue to perform the same page-by-page, pass/fail reviews and use the same risk management practices (that adopt little to no risk) as they have for decades. The way agencies implement Kyl-Lott certification continues to pose a serious obstacle to making records fully available, requiring cumbersome reviews. A public release rate of just 61% during the reviews demonstrates that agencies still make too many unnecessary referrals to each other. Additionally, many important series of records still require privacy and access screening before being made available in the research room. Clearly, we need better risk management and process reforms to improve access.
Despite the recent NDC success, the NDC continues to need support if it is to continue its mission. The way forward should include not only a prioritization plan, but also a commitment to strengthening and modernizing processes and technology at the NDC and agencies. In our 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System, the PIDB recommended that the President strengthen the role and authority of the NDC. The NDC already proved its worth through its backlog accomplishments – and our recommendations, if adopted, will build on that success. Among our other recommendations is a call for a Government-wide declassification policy, led by the NDC, to implement a fully integrated approach to the review of historical records. This action would eliminate many of the referrals now holding up public access to the records. We recommended the piloting and adoption of new technologies and risk management practices to increase access to historical records and prepare for the upcoming automatic declassification of born-digital records. With careful policy and process improvements, we also see an opportunity to provide greater access to obsolete historical nuclear information of our Government, a truly transformational reform. These changes, and many others, will modernize the declassification system for the 21st century and greatly improve public access.
Prioritization remains a challenge and is of particular importance to the public and to the PIDB. Meeting the December 31, 2013 deadline to complete the review of the backlog understandably took precedence in managing the NDC, but now we believe there is an opportunity to improve the way the Government prioritizes records at the NDC and across agencies. The PIDB proposes the NDC considers prioritization as an important and meaningful step forward in making records fully accessible to the public, including younger records and born-digital records typically not selected for review. We hope the declassification priority topics the PIDB is soliciting on our blog and that our upcoming report on our findings will produce a framework to assist the NDC and agencies in their efforts to focus their limited resources on making access available to those records most sought after by requesters.
The PIDB commends the NDC and agencies for working together and with great transparency, and under challenging conditions often not under their control (the partial shutdown of the government was one such challenge). We recognize that under these constraints, many challenges still impede access to and the full release of the entire backlog of records. The PIDB understands there is still much work to be done on the backlog and on newly accessioned records at the NDC. We look forward to working with the NDC to build upon your accomplishments thus far.