The Boston Globe published an article yesterday titled, “U.S. lags in airing its old secrets.” It discusses the challenges facing the National Declassification Center (NDC) and the effect current declassification policies and practices have on providing timely access to historical records at the National Archives and Records Administration. In the article, journalist Bryan Bender quotes PIDB Chair, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, as she offers insight into the challenges facing the system: “The current system is simply not capable of addressing the vast volume of information… It requires agencies to be willing to take a small additional risk for much more benefit.” The PIDB made several recommendations to improve declassification policies and processes in its 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System. The PIDB recommended new policies that, if adopted, will facilitate greater public access records that are historically relevant and significant and do it sooner. Current declassification review policies are ill-suited for the looming challenges of Big Data. Among other recommendations, the PIDB wrote of the need for new policies that allow for risk-based reviews and the use of technology to make declassification more efficient and effective. The article discusses other obstacles the NDC faces while trying to provide public access to the records, including the divergent quality of reviews, the previously poor treatment many records received from agencies and the frequent assertion by agencies that whole categories of records cannot be released to the public using the NDC’s sampling process, which mitigates risk to increase the release rate of records by the agencies. Despite these challenges, the PIDB believes the NDC remains committed to working with agencies to push for greater reforms and modernization. However, it must adopt new policies and have sufficient resources and tools – including technology – to fulfill its mission in the digital age. The PIDB believes greater reform is needed to modernize a 70-year old system into one that is capable of handling petabytes of government information.
For more insight into the challenges facing the NDC and the larger declassification system, you can read the Boston Globe article here.
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The Boston Globe article makes clear that the current declassification process is not intended to actually declassify all relevant material information, rather it allows agencies to object to declassification, which is then the end of the process.
This is particularly frustrating with a high public interest topic like the assassination of President Kennedy in which there is very high expressed public interest in the remaining classified documents. NDC responds that these documents were previously reviewed in the 1990’s under the JFK Records Act process, therefore NDC does not intend to address them. The goal of the NDC activity seems to be to do a once through to see if any agency objects to declassification, and if so, those records are set aside. High public interest is apparently given no consideration.
Another example from the Globe story of our failed system of public disclosure is the CIA draft history of the Bay of Pigs subject of a court ruling last week. Judge Rogers in her dissent pointed out that the CIA chief historian stated in a declaration filed in the case that the document is a ‘polemic of recriminations’ against officials deemed responsible for the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation. Each official investigation of President Kennedy’s murder has considered that anger over his handling of the Bay of Pigs was a possible motive for his assassination, and this document would appear to fall in that category. Yet the document remains secret forever under our system of public disclosure.