Secrecy News

Set Priorities for Declassification, Study Urges

Each year millions of pages of government records are declassified that few if any members of the public will ever look at. This is an awkward fact which is not often discussed because it might call into question the whole declassification enterprise.

“Statistical Records Relating to Ship Stability, 1918-67,” anyone? A new collection of declassified records on that subject was among those processed for release recently by the National Declassification Center. Like too many other such records, it seems unlikely to generate or to justify much public attention.

In response to this problem, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an official advisory committee, said that agencies should do more to selectively prioritize topics of high public interest for declassification review rather than trying to declassify most records as they become 25 years old.

“After studying declassification practices in use at agencies and at the National Declassification Center (NDC), we concluded that a coordinated government-wide policy focused on declassifying historically significant records with greatest interest to the public made most sense,” wrote former Congressman David E. Skaggs, the acting chair of the PIDB, in a letter to President Obama last week transmitting a new PIDB report on the subject.

“Currently, all classified records of a certain age receive the same attention, regardless of their historical value or potential research interest,” the PIDB report said. “Such indiscriminate use of dwindling government resources makes no sense.”

PIDB therefore proposed that agencies move away from broad-based “automatic declassification” (which is rarely if ever automatic) to “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,” the report said.

The PIDB proposal, which addresses a genuine problem, itself raises several concerns.

Automatic declassification of all (non-exempt) historically valuable 25 year old classified records was originally mandated by the Clinton Administration in 1995 in order to compel agencies to take declassification seriously. It served as a forcing function, requiring documents to be released if they were not reviewed or exempted, and it yielded more than a billion pages of declassified records.

A move away from automatic declassification could eliminate that forcing function without replacing it with another equally compelling rationale. The PIDB report says, a bit vaguely, not to worry: “Lessening the burden of automatic declassification [in a shift to topical priorities]… should not reduce the overall declassification activity across government.” It is not immediately clear why not.

Another concern is how to establish which declassification priorities are actually dictated by “the public interest.” There are certainly passionate communities of interest surrounding topics such as the JFK assassination, prisoners of war, or intelligence history, but these are not necessarily a proper basis for a “public interest” declassification agenda. Even a preliminary list of declassification topics that was compiled by the PIDB itself and published in the new report is admittedly “too extensive and diffuse… to inform decisions leading to implementation of a priority-based declassification program.”

A deeper problem than the choice of topics or the impact of resource limitations is the question of which criteria are to be used by agencies for making declassification decisions. If the declassification criteria are obsolete or overly conservative, then applying them even to well-chosen topics won’t do much good.

The PIDB report does not directly engage the question of how to optimize and update declassification criteria. It does propose, however, to eliminate the crude pass/fail process that is often used to withhold entire documents when even a small portion of them is found to be exempt. The report also notes in passing that the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Review Act mandated disclosure requirements for assassination-related records that were “much more stringent” than those of past and current executive orders. There is perhaps an implicit suggestion that a similarly forthcoming approach could be adopted in other topical reviews.

The PIDB report also discusses new applications of technology to declassification, the need for increased risk tolerance, and other topics.

Meanwhile, the demand for declassification is persistent and growing.

Just last week, Sen. Carl Levin renewed his request to the Central Intelligence Agency “to fully declassify a March 13, 2003 cable from CIA field officers to headquarters. This cable provides information about the Bush administration’s campaign to build public support for the Iraq invasion” on grounds that were erroneous and misleading, Sen. Levin said in a December 11 floor statement.

A day before, Sen. Mark Udall introduced a resolution calling on the Administration to declassify records on mass killings and U.S. covert action in Indonesia in the 1960s. “Some may ask, why is this resolution needed? Why now? This is why: The survivors and descendants of victims continue to be marginalized. Many of the killers continue to live with impunity. Very few Americans are aware of these historical events or our government’s actions during this time. These events demand our attention and resolution as we work together to build a strong Asia-Pacific partnership,” he said.

And also last week, Congress approved the new FY 2014-15 intelligence authorization act containing a provision (sec. 321) that “requires the DNI to submit a report to Congress describing proposals to improve the declassification process.”