Secrecy News

Putting Declassified Records to Good Use

The final, climactic step in the declassification of government records is not the formal removal of classification markings or even the transfer of the declassified documents to public archives. The culmination of the declassification process is when the records are finally examined by an interested reader and their contents are absorbed into the body of public knowledge.

The records themselves are mute. It is the reader who interprets them, assigns them their significance, and thereby adds value to them.

Declassification of government records can be a tedious bureaucratic process.  But at its most successful, it can also be an electrifying, revelatory source of fundamental new insights.

So, for example, “The declassification of imagery from CORONA and subsequent intelligence satellite programs has inspired a revolution in landscape archaeology in the Near East,” wrote Harvard archaeologist Jason Ur in a book chapter last year.

Support for archaeological research was never intended or imagined by those who built or operated Cold War intelligence satellites. Yet “CORONA has emerged as an irreplaceable source for reconstructing ancient landscapes.”

Declassified CORONA satellite imagery “allows virtual survey of regions where ground observation would be difficult or impossible” and it has already yielded a near doubling of the number of archeological sites of interest, Dr. Ur wrote.

See Spying on the Past: Declassified Intelligence Satellite Photographs and Near Eastern Landscapes, Near Eastern Archaeology, volume 76, no. 1 (2013).

In another promising new initiative using declassified government records, historians, statisticians, computer scientists and others at Columbia University have joined forces to try to develop new ways to derive insights from such records.

Their project, known as the Declassification Engine, works to apply statistical tools and machine learning to cast new light on declassified record collections. With such tools, the project believes it will be able to characterize declassified records in meaningful new ways.

Near-term objectives include the attribution of authorship to anonymous documents, identifying patterns of secrecy in previously redacted text, and correlating the production of (de)classified diplomatic cables with international events in order to help uncover significant events that may have gone unrecognized. Another seemingly mundane but vital goal that is coming within reach is to enable the cost-effective digitization of documents that are in non-standard formats or that are not entirely legible.

“The long-range goal is to create a cloud-based virtual archive,” according to the project website. “It would aggregate the digitized documents now scattered across dozens of different repositories, offer a place for scholars and journalists to upload their own archival finds, and provide a range of visualization and attribution tools to advance research on the history, and future, of world politics.”

See also The Ghost Files by David J. Craig, Columbia Magazine, Winter 2013-14.

For now, however, these kinds of innovative approaches to the exploitation of classified documents stand out as novelties. They are still exceptions to the conventional rule.

Even when declassification is successfully accomplished, many — probably most — declassified records go unexamined by researchers and other members of the public.

This is partly a resource issue, said William J. Bosanko, the chief operating officer of the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA’s holdings have quadrupled in the last few decades, while its staff support has remained close to level. As a result, archivists have been unable to produce detailed indexing of many incoming records so as to make them easily “discoverable.”

At the same time, there seem to be fewer and fewer individual researchers that are inclined to delve deeply into archived collections of hardcopy records. It appears that many of them — many of us — have become habituated instead to the instant gratification of online access. (There are, however, backlogs of FOIA and mandatory declassification review requests.)

The upshot is that “there are lots of [record] series never used by the public,” said Mr. Bosanko. He noted that this is true of both declassified records and of records that were never classified.

This neglect is not a reflection on the contents of those records, which are endlessly rich. “There is a huge, vast treasure trove of fascinating stories waiting to be revealed” at the National Archives, Mr. Bosanko said. But they continue to wait.

Another persistent problem is the erratic, often illogical character of the declassification process.

The Department of Defense recently sought to redact the well-known fact that there were U.S. missiles deployed in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This and other “inane and contradictory declassification actions” were highlighted recently by the non-profit National Security Archive.

“It is a waste of resources and a sign of a seriously defective declassification system when reviewers redact 50-year-old documents when nothing about them is sensitive,” wrote William Burr of the National Security Archive.  See Dubious Secrets of the Cuban Missile Crisis, February 21, 2014.

As with classification, so too with declassification: new oversight procedures are needed to prevent egregious errors and to promote more discriminating judgment.

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