Secrecy News

Declassification of the Historical Backlog – A Correction

Secrecy News stated yesterday that the decline in the number of pages reviewed for declassification last year (as reported by the Information Security Oversight Office) means that the goal set by President Obama of reviewing the entire backlog of 25 year old historical records by December 2013 will not be achieved.

But that is not correct, an Archives official said.  Progress in reducing the backlog is independent of progress in conducting declassification review since only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of pages of backlogged records require formal declassification “review.”  (In theory, at least, most of them have already been “reviewed,” and reported as such in previous ISOO reports).

Instead of being “reviewed” for declassification, the official said, the backlogged records are being “assessed” for the presence of exempted information (such as RD or FRD), in which case they will not be released.  The records are also undergoing “declassification processing” for public access.  But not “declassification review.” Only in a minority of cases are backlogged records being referred for “declassification review.”

We regret adding confusion to an already confusing situation.

In contrast to our somber view of the contents of the new ISOO annual report, the National Archives issued a rather upbeat press release on the report.

But the Archives press release does not mention that total declassification activity declined in 2011 from the year before, which seems like a significant omission.

As to whether the President’s December 2013 deadline for elimination of the backlog of historical records will be met, with or without “review,” it is hard to be optimistic.

The National Declassification Center stated in its last semi-annual report that the diversion of resources necessary to screen for Restricted Data and Formerly Restricted Data in the backlogged records “will certainly impact our ability to complete all declassification processing by the deadline.”

But it would be a mistake to anticipate failure, the Archives official said, adding “It’s not over until it’s over.”