In his March 2003 executive order 13292, President Bush affirmed that on December 31, 2006, with certain limitations, “all classified records that (1) are more than 25 years old and (2) have been determined to have permanent historical value under title 44, United States Code, shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed.”
That December 31 deadline is now almost here, the New York Times noted in a front page story today. See “U.S. to Declassify Secrets at Age 25” by Scott Shane, New York Times, December 21.
The automatic declassification of 25 year old records, which will continue to apply to new records each year as they become 25 years old, is a genuine innovation in classification policy. It is a credit both to the Clinton Administration, which first adopted the proposal, and the Bush Administration, which did not abandon it.
In practice, however, the impact of the policy may not be as dramatic as one might imagine, for several reasons.
First, many agencies have sought and received exemptions for one of nine categories of information (war plans, intelligence sources, WMD information, etc.) that need not be declassified. (Selected agency declassification plans may be found here.)
Second, records that involve the interests (“equities”) of more than one agency are not subject to this month’s deadline. Rather, they are to be declassified by December 31, 2009.
Third, declassification does not imply immediate disclosure. Some declassified records may still need to be reviewed for privacy data and other exempt information.
Finally, the processing of hundreds of millions or billions of declassified pages to make them publicly accessible is a logistical challenge that may exceed the capability of the National Archives, which has faced increasing budgetary pressures.
Unless Congress chooses to provide supplemental resources for the Archives, many declassified records will remain inaccessible.
In a December 21 news release (pdf), the Office of Director of National Intelligence announced the declassification of “four decades of U.S. intelligence on Yugoslavia” including 34 recently declassified National Intelligence Estimates. The records are available through the National Intelligence Council.