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Document Friday: The Department of Defense Needs Only One Paragraph to Illustrate Why the Declassification System is Broken

February 17, 2012

Fourteen declass reviews is thirteen reviews too many,

Should a 29-year-old document about a military drill against the (no longer existent) Soviet Union really need to be reviewed by fourteen different declassification reviewers at fourteen different agencies and components?  Under the current declassification system, yes.  And that is why the current system is broken.

The Department of Defense –and especially its Washington Headquarters Service– takes the declassification of its documents seriously.  They follow the law, and do an excellent job keeping requesters in the loop about what’s going on.  This request was no exception.  As the letter below clearly shows, in addition to WHS, thirteen different agencies or components claimed “equity” of –ownership and the right to censor– this document about the  Wintex 83 exercise.

(Personal side note: Able Archer 83 was a component of Wintex 83.  The Soviets were so alarmed by the realistic nature of the Able Archer exercise –and relations were so poor between the US and USSR– that the Soviets put their nuclear capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany “in heightened readiness” –a strong nuclear “signal,” at the very least.  As I wrote my undergraduate and MA theses on Able Archer, I got so angry about at the lack of access to historic government documents about this incident that I got into the FOIA/MDR business.)

Doing less with more?

The National Security Archive has frequently argued that the equity system is the primary reason for the US’s broken declassifiation system –it can take longer than 20 years for some documents to be declassified.  We’ve presented our position to the Public Interest Declassification Board which (supposedly) is charged with presenting President Obama with proposals on how to enact a “more fundamental transformation of the security classification system.”  We’ve also made our case to public hearings held by the National Declassification Center.

And President Obama has echoed this sentiment.  In his memorandum instructing the National Declassification Center to review and declassify 400 million pages of historic documents by December 31, 2013, the president acknowledged the inefficiency of the unnecessary equity system and instructed the NDC to abandon it.  He stated: “further referrals of these records are not required except for those containing information that would clearly and demonstrably reveal [confidential human sources or key WMD design concepts].” (Emphasis added.)

But the NDC appears to have ignored this instruction from the president, instead maintaining a “declassification-as-usual” mindset, as I critiqued in an earlier post.  This mindset, unsurprisingly, has led to an extremely languid and inefficient pace at the Center.  Currently, the NDC has completed declassification of just 22.6 million pages (only 5.8 percent of the backlog) of the 400 million that the president instructed them to complete by 2013.

I have attended multiple trainings and meetings with declassifiers from agencies throughout the government.  Believe me, they are skilled, knowledgeable, capable, efficient, and take their jobs extremely seriously.  And I refuse to believe that a declassifier at one agency is unable to declassify documents from another. With the proper training, a US government declassifier should be capable to declassify any document produced by any agency, by reviewing it one time.

Until this “equity fallacy” is remedied, the US declassification system will continue to spiral out of control.

In his National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership, the president pledged to, “oversee the development of standard declassification processes and training to improve and align declassification reviews across agencies.”  To do this, he must force the reform of the equity system.

Fourteen reviews of a document is thirteen reviews too many.

  1. February 17, 2012 5:32 pm


  2. Frank Schiffel permalink
    February 17, 2012 7:44 pm

    Having classified documents, the guidance under the law is a security classification guide. This notes who has authority over what item being classified and when it should be declassified. Usually its 25 years except for ‘sources and methods’. There IS guidance that documents should not be classified longer than necessary, and those that maintain or own the documents have and obligation to note what should be declassified and what no longer needs to be secret. After all, who wants to keep and maintain stuff that isn’t necessarily secret?

    Looks like the system is broken. Or the agencies have really been dumbed down.

  3. Frank Schiffel permalink
    February 17, 2012 7:52 pm

    But think of it this way. Sometimes you get 14 documents back, each with different parts redacted. Given those, you can almost reproduce the original intact.


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