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Government Declassification Watchdog: End Wasteful Equity Re-Reviews; End “Pass/Fail” Shortcut; Prioritize High Interest Document Sets.

January 20, 2015

President Obama and the National Archives have created a good engine for mass declassification, the National Declassification Center.  But as its unacceptable 41 percent denial rate shows, several of its pistons are misfiring and need to be primed for declassification.

The most controversial recommendation in the Public Interest Declassification Board’s most recent report may not be its most important.

In Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification the PIDB –composed of members appointed by the President and both Congressional parties– recommended that “Topic based declassification should be the normal process rather than the exception.”  This recommendation has stirred archivists, researchers, and open government advocates (and more on it below!), but the report also includes at least two other recommendations which the National Security Archive believes are even more important.

The first recommendation is a head-on attack against the wasteful referral and consultation re-review process.  “Clinging to manually-intensive processes diverts increasing dwindling resources,” the PIDB writes, “There must be an understanding and agreement that the current practice of having one, two or more persons conduct a laborious page-by-page declassification assessment for each record under review is an unsustainable practice.  Amen.  The National Security Archive has long argued this.  And, despite the National Declassification Center’s refusal to follow his instruction, so has President Obama.  There is no reason fourteen sets of eyes are needed to review historic documents for declassification.  The National Declassification Center and other government declassifiers should follow the Public Interest Declassification Board’s advice and end the wasteful practice of multiple declassification re-reviews of historic documents.


Perhaps as helpful as any of its recommendations, the PIDB has “lifted the curtain” on the convoluted, “laborious,” “unsustainable,” re-review process that documents at the National Declassification Center are herded through.  The National Security Archive has long called for a simplified, single review of these 25-plus-year-old documents.

Despite likely agency outcry, the fact is that past reviews show that a “one set of eyes-one decision” review is possible, effective, and desirable.  Both the JFK Assassination Records Review Board and (to a lesser extent) the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group have shown that declassifiers can effectively be unleashed from the bonds of mandated equity re-review.  The PIDB was acutely aware of this as they authored their report, noting the “more stringent standard for allowing continued classification” utilized by the JFK Assassination Records Review Board.  These two instances have shown that the danger of one overzealous reviewer redacting too much information can be assuaged with proper training, quality review, and utilization of Executive Order 13526’s provision 3.1(d).  President Obama was also aware of the wastefulness of multiple equity re-reviews of historical documents when he created the National Declassification Center.  The president instructed the NDC that “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];” but the NDC chose not to go this route and employed multiple equity reviews.  The extremely high (41 percent) denial rate is the result of the NDC’s refusal to embrace the president’s instruction.  Perhaps the PIDB can still force it to.

The president says to end referrals... But we won't.

The president says to end referrals.  So why didn’t the NDC?

The second important recommendation is the PIDB’s call to “End pass/fail determinations and identify necessary redactions for topic-based reviews” at the National Declassification Center.  As the PIDB explains, “a single word in a record determined to require continued classification beyond 25 years will cause the entire record to ‘fail.’  This process, originally designed by agencies to conserve limited resources, actually does the opposite.”   Instead of taking care of declassification business, this “page by page” shortcut shoves these historic documents back into the vaults (still classified) until a requester requests another “wasteful, expensive” re-reveiw.

The ineffectiveness of pass/fail review can be seen in the figures of the National Declassification Center’s own statistics.  According to the NDC’s December 2013 report, it has completed “The successful retirement of the 352-million-page backlog,” but a closer look at the NDC’s figures shows that only 77 million pages (59 percent of those released to the public) were actually declassified.   The remaining 53 million pages were returned to their SCIFs, where they will await re-review at some future point.  (According to the NDC report, an additional 222 million pages have “successfully” completed declassification review but have not completed NARA’s boxing and processing procedures –and possibly another Department of Energy review– and are not available in the stacks for researchers to peruse.  It is possible they may be available if specially requested.)

A comparison with government-wide Mandatory Declassification Review figures (page 12) reveals just how low the NDC’s declassification rate is.  Documents requested under MDR are released to the public in whole or in part almost 92 percent of the time.  This release rate would be even higher if it included only documents 25 years or older.  As the PIDB report accurately details, the “wasteful, expensive” shortcut of pass/fail review is a primary impediment to an effective National Declassification Center.


Stuborn adherence to equity Re-review, “Pass/Fail” expedience, and overly cautious review are the reasons why declassification of historic documents at the National Declassification Center are declassified at a drastically lower rate than current classified documents.  Chart (same as above) created by Lauren Harper.

Furthermore, the 59 percent of documents declassified by the National Declassification Center have been described by researchers as “low hanging fruit,” of little value to researchers of military and foreign policy history.  (And, as I discuss below, yes this is a normative argument, I’m sure someone, somewhere, is eager to pore through the eleven boxes of declassified WW2-era fathograms.)  At its inception, the NDC acknowledged the importance of prioritizing the declassification of  documents with “high public interest.”  Unfortunately, the goal of declassifying what researchers want to see appears to have been dropped along the way (one NDC report noted only 1 percent of all documents in the backlog were “High Interest, Easy to Process“).

Which brings me to the recommendation presented in Setting Priorities that has been most controversial among archivists, researchers, and open government advocates.  This recommendation calls for agencies, including the National Declassification Center, to move toward “topic-based prioritization [that] would ensure declassification review of records of the greatest potential for use by the public, historians, public policy professionals and the national security community itself.”

This paradigm shifting suggestion has led to criticism.  Steve Aftergood has warned of the danger that moving toward prioritized declassification could undermine the historic Automatic Declassification forcing mechanism created by a 1995 Clinton Administration Order (though presidents since Clinton, including Obama, have largely exempted agencies from “automatically” complying –they must still review every document– from 25 year Automatic Declassification, and hence the 352 million page backlog of documents older than 25 years at NARA).

Others have warned of the potential danger of damaging archival provenance by “Swiss cheese declassification.”  The National Security Archive strongly agrees that it would be a critical mistake to corrupt the provenance of collections by pulling documents about certain topics for declassification while leaving the rest unprocessed.  If prioritization were to occur, it would have to be the prioritization of record series (or perhaps box level), not of topics cutting across all of NARA’s backlog such as “Cold War in Europe, 1947-1991” (which is likely impossible anyways).

Another longstanding critique is that targeted declassification reviews are inherently unfair.  Warren Kimball, who served for six years as chair of the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee, summarized this view in the aftermath of the Congressionally mandated Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board: “Simply put, government has no business selecting what topics to open and what not to review…If we give in to our and the general public’s fascination for the sensational, the public will gain access only to controlled pieces of information.”  What Kimball does not state is that by NARA’s own admission, documents available to researchers have already very much been controlled by government employees… by throwing them away; NARA estimates that only two to five percent of all documents created by the federal government are “judged to have continuing value” and preserved.

The National Security Archive agrees with the important concerns raised in the above criticisms, and does not support the targeted declassification of the disparate topics listed in an appendix to the PIDB report.  (The PIDB itself concedes the list of topics it compiled by soliciting researcher interest is “too extensive and diffuse… to inform decisions leading to implementation of a priority-based declassification program.”)

In principle, the National Security Archive supports the Public Interest Declassification Board's recommendation for the "proritization fo the most historically significant and sought-after information the public desires."   The report is certainly worth a read.

In principle, the National Security Archive supports the Public Interest Declassification Board’s recommendation for the “prioritization of the most historically significant and sought-after information the public desires.” The report is certainly worth a read.

But the National Security Archive does support the targeted (and thorough) declassification of key series of records while continuing bulk declassification of all records in NARA’s possession.  My colleague Bill Burr has consistently argued for the prioritized declassification of the records of “principal policy makers… Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman/Joint Chiefs of Staff, and director/Arms Control and Disarmament Agency… Because policy makers are confronted with a broad range of issues, declassification of their records will meet a variety of researcher interest in terms of geographic areas and functional subject areas (military, economic, political-diplomatic, intelligence, cultural).”

The National Declassification Center has made some wise decisions of top level material, including the opening of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s Director’s files on Non Proliferation Treaty negotiations and records of the Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach.

The NDC needs to continue to prioritize and declassify important high level, “high coverage” files like these, including: State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research files; records from Assistant Secretaries of State; Joint Chiefs of Staff Histories, Command Histories, Unit Histories, Wing Histories, Fleet Histories, (and supporting documentation); other classified internal histories including those in the classified editions of the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence and Clandestine Service Histories Project, records schedule and accessioning documents which will help researchers target documents by title or description, Inspectors General reports, and indexes of reports produced by agencies –including the CIA’s Monthly Index of Photographic Exploitation Products; and yes, finally —to gain public support and demonstrate declassification clout— the remaining 1,171 distinct documents related to the John F. Kennedy assassination held by the National Archives whose release to the public was postponed until 2017.

We know that prioritization of records such as the above can be difficult.  Further on in his recommendation, Burr presciently –but unsuccessfully– warned “Rather than going first after low-hanging fruit, the emphasis at NDC should be on high quality records, beginning with the office files of top civilian and military policy makers… Researchers would prefer high quality records across the spectrum of records groups.  In any event, there is going to be a learning  curve for everyone when it comes to tackling the high quality, difficult records and it is better that NDC get started on this now, not later.”

In addition to the records of the heads of civilian and military organizations, I believe that the NDC should also prioritize the records held at Presidential Libraries (and under NARA control).  These libraries, due to lack of resources, the wasteful equity referral re-review system (that the PIDB has called to end), and –yes, often mismanagement–,  are woefully behind in their mission of presenting presidential documents to the public.  If the NDC were to prioritize and succeed at effective (not 59 percent!) declassification of these critically important historic presidential documents it would be a welcome victory for the Center.

Finally, despite the National Security Archive’s criticisms of the National Declassification Center’s low release rate and inability to declassify high interest documents, we believe that the NDC is one of President Obama’s most important transparency initiatives.   Archivists, researchers, historians, and public access advocates must work to ensure that it is preserved and funded into the next administration and beyond.  President Obama and the National Archives have set up a good engine for declassification of historic declassification –though several of its pistons are currently misfiring.

If the National Declassification Center is able to adapt to the recommendations of the PIDB, including ending the “unsustainable practice” of multiple equity re-review, ending the “wasteful, expensive” shortcut of pass/fail review, and endeavor past “low hanging fruit” and declassify high level, high interest documents –including those held at Presidential Libraries, then it will have succeeded in following President Obama’s instruction to harness the “efficient and effective utilization of finite resources available for declassification.”

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