FY2020 NDAA Requires Pentagon Report on Declassification Backlog

The Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Secretary of Defense to submit an unclassified “report on reducing the backlog in legally required historical declassification obligations of the Department of Defense” to the Armed Services Committees of the House and the Senate (P.L. 116-92, Sec. 1759). The report is due to these committees on April 18, 2020 – 120 days after enactment of the NDAA.  The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) wholeheartedly support the actions called for in the NDAA.

The FY 2020 NDAA specifically requires that the report include the Department of Defense’s (DOD) plans to reduce backlogs in “legally mandated historical declassification,” and increase productivity. The NDAA recognizes the importance of DOD adopting use of advanced technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other Machine Learning technologies. It requires the Secretary of Defense to include a plan for DOD to adopt and implement technologies into declassification processes. The law also requires the Secretary of Defense to provide an assessment of records released for each of the past three years under 25- and 50-year automatic declassification review programs, and an estimate of how many records DOD will review and declassify in each of the next three years.

In addition to this report, Congress requires that the Secretary of Defense to provide a report on the “progress and objectives” of DOD in reviewing and declassifying records for publication in the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, and for public access at the National Archives and Records Administration  and the presidential libraries.

Each of these requirements in the NDAA embody recommendations of the PIDB. The PIDB has consistently advocated for the implementation of AI and other advanced technologies to improve declassification efficiency and effectiveness. First, use of these technologies are essential in reducing backlogs of records awaiting declassification review, and in ensuring consistency of declassification decisions. Second, current manual declassification processes are not sustainable nor desirable in handling the volume of digital data. The PIDB highlighted the need for advanced technologies in its 2016 Report to the President, The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification.

The NDAA included specific reporting requirements for DOD to describe its plan for assisting historians and the Department of State in publishing FRUS and assisting National Declassification Center in declassifying records accessioned to NARA and in the Presidential Libraries. These records are of historical interest and should be prioritized for declassification review. In 2014, the PIDB advocated for prioritizing the review of records of historical significance in its report to the President, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification.

Submission of the Secretary of Defense’s report to Congress on the growing declassification challenges at DOD and DOD agencies directly affects the public and its ability to learn about our history and participate in the democratic process of holding Government officials accountable.  As the 120-day deadline approaches in mid-April, the members of the PIDB – and all stakeholders – will be interested to learn of the Secretary of Defense’s plans for modernizing its declassification policies and processes to include technology and his plans for prioritizing the declassification review for records sought for publication in the FRUS and held by the NARA and the presidential libraries.

The PIDB’s Transforming Classification blog and the Information Security Oversight’s new blog, The ISOO Overview, intends to post additional information about the contents of the Secretary of Defense’s report to Congress as it is made available to the public.

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