Congress Grapples with Classification Issues

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) would direct the President to reduce the amount of classified information by 10%. It is one of several new congressional initiatives seeking to rectify perceived defects in the national security classification system.

Most prominently, the Senate Intelligence Committee is engaged in an ongoing dispute with the Administration over declassification of the Committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Committee chair, said the Administration’s proposed redactions to the executive summary of the report were unacceptably broad.

“I have concluded the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” she said on August 5. “Until these redactions are addressed to the committee’s satisfaction, the report will not be made public.”

With this contentious experience fresh in mind, one might have expected the Senate Intelligence Committee to have acquired special insight into the failings of the existing classification system and to have devised some well-considered remedial measures to address them.

But that does not appear to be the case.

In its new intelligence authorization bill for Fiscal Year 2015 (S. 2741, sec. 311), the Committee weakly requires the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a report “describing proposals to improve the declassification process throughout the intelligence community.”

Under current circumstances, this proposed reporting requirement seems like a failure of imagination and leadership, and probably a waste of everyone’s time. Perhaps it is just a placeholder for something more ambitious that is still to come.

By contrast, the bill introduced by Rep. Thompson in the House and by Sen. Ron Wyden in the Senate is prescriptive and solution-oriented in its treatment of the issue.

Among its several provisions, the new bill (HR 5240) would require the President “to establish a goal for the reduction of classified information by not less than 10 percent within five years through improved declassification and improved original and derivative classification decision-making,” according to a Fact Sheet on the bill, dubbed the CORRECT Act. (It is unclear how the 10 percent reduction in information would be measured, whether in pages or bytes or number of classification decisions or by some other standard.)

The Thompson/Wyden bill would also bolster and expand the Public Interest Declassification Board, assigning it the responsibility to evaluate the continuing validity of all current classification guidance. Though this provision may seem innocuous, it is a clear challenge to the autonomy that is currently enjoyed by executive branch agencies regarding what is to be classified. As such, it represents the kernel of a solution to the problem of overclassification.

The bill would further direct the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to establish standards for the emerging insider threat program, and it would decisively break from current practice by authorizing the Merit System Protection Board to review agency denials or revocations of security clearances.

However, the deliberative effort that has gone into preparing the bill is not going to yield any near-term reward. In all likelihood, Rep. Thompson’s CORRECT Act will not even receive a hearing in the remainder of this expiring Congress.

Another modest but potentially useful legislative effort is an amendment to be introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that would enhance the authority and capacity of the National Declassification Center.

If the Senate Intelligence Committee wants a report on “improving declassification,” as the new intelligence authorization bill requires, then there is already a report with that very title that was prepared by the Public Interest Declassification Board in December 2007.

Several of the report’s recommendations have still not been acted on. Among them is a proposal that “formal procedures should be established for the declassification review of classified [congressional] committee reports and hearing transcripts.”

Because such records are produced and held by congressional committees, such as the Senate Intelligence Committee, they are not eligible for declassification unless and until the originating committee takes the initiative to have them reviewed and declassified. Yet this is rarely done, despite the importance of these materials.

“Frequently, closed sessions of congressional committees are the only occasion when executive branch policy in the national security area is explained, challenged (by members), and defended by administration representatives. The exchanges at these hearings, as well as the views of Congress (elaborated in classified committee reports), often affect the policy choices of the executive branch. Yet, because the records of the committees involved are classified and never subjected to declassification review, the public and historians are largely unaware of their existence,” the PIDB report said.

“Despite their historical significance, classified records created by the Congress are reviewed for declassification only on a hit-or-miss and relatively limited basis. As a result, the public is denied a valuable source of historically significant information,” the report said.

So, for example, not a single classified annex to the annual intelligence authorization bills produced by the congressional intelligence committees has ever been declassified.

When the Administration Asks Itself to Declassify

In preparing its recent report on the Section 702 surveillance program, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) demonstrated an unusual mode of declassification, in which one executive branch agency asks another agency to declassify information.

In this case, the process was remarkably productive, and it may offer a precedent for future declassification efforts.

“During the process of preparing this report we sought and obtained declassification of facts about this still highly classified [Section 702] program in order to allow us to put in context how the program operates and clarify some public misconceptions,” said PCLOB Chairman David Medine at a July 2 public meeting.

“As a result, over one hundred new facts were declassified by the government to provide needed context for the program’s operation,” he said.

In what the PCLOB staff termed a “lateral declassification” model, it was an executive branch agency (i.e., the PCLOB itself) — rather than Congress or members of the public — that pressed another government agency (ODNI, NSA, CIA, FBI or Justice) to declassify specific information.

Such an interagency request for declassification differs from the “referrals” that agencies routinely direct to one another. In those cases, the receiving agency is simply asked to review records to identify its own classified information (or “equities”) and then to advise the originating agency what must be withheld and what may be disclosed.

Here, the PCLOB didn’t merely ask agencies to screen for classified information under existing classification standards. It urged them to actually change those standards. And in more than 100 specific cases, the agencies did so.

Most of the declassified facts in the PCLOB Section 702 report are not specifically flagged as having been declassified at the Board’s request, and they may therefore be easily overlooked. A partial compilation of such newly declassified facts, prepared by a participant in the process, was obtained by Secrecy News.

Several features appear to have contributed to the efficacy of the lateral declassification approach.

For one thing, the requesting agency (the PCLOB) already possessed the requested information in classified form. So it knew exactly what it was asking for, and why it was asking for it to be declassified.

And then the fact that the declassification requests originated within the executive branch itself (the PCLOB is an independent executive branch agency) made it harder for the recipient agencies to ignore the request and easier for them to fulfill it.

By contrast, public requests through the Freedom of Information Act often seem to decline into an adversarial contest, in which the agency adopts a defensive posture and offers only minimal, grudging compliance with disclosure requirements.  (At CIA, one gets the impression that asking for a record to be declassified can make it less likely to be disclosed.) Requests from Congress also inevitably have a political overlay, and may be seen to serve an agenda that does not coincide with the Administration’s own.

But as part of the Administration, the PCLOB’s many declassification requests did not trigger the sort of immune response that any outside request would have done.

Of course, the PCLOB’s work, including its declassification proposals, did not take place in a vacuum.

“A lot of political wind was at our back,” said Peter Winn, acting general counsel for the Board.

Not only had related classified details entered the public domain through the Snowden disclosures, but calls for declassification of more information regarding current surveillance programs had been explicitly endorsed by the Director of National Intelligence and other senior officials.

Because of these competing factors, the role played by the Board’s “lateral declassification” approach cannot be precisely delineated or clearly distinguished from them.

But its apparent effectiveness is consistent with the productive declassification work performed by another executive branch body, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), which has declassified information in a large majority of the mandatory declassification review appeals presented to it.

Perhaps most important, the Board’s experience with declassification in the Section 702 report may serve as a precedent for similar initiatives in the future.

“For us, it’s a model,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, executive director of the PCLOB.

She noted that more than 90% of the Board’s requests for declassification had been granted, and that they preceded completion of the Board’s report. (That is, the declassification actions were not predicated on any agency’s review of the Board’s conclusions or recommendations.)

Enough information about the 702 program was declassified that a classified annex — which had earlier been assumed to be necessary — turned out to be unnecessary, Ms. Franklin said.

She also credited the intelligence agencies for their diligent engagement and cooperation in the declassification process, as did the published PCLOB report.

“In the preparation of this Report, the Board worked with the Intelligence Community to seek further declassification of information related to the Section 702 program,” the report noted (at p. 3).

“Specifically, the Board requested declassification of additional facts for use in this Report. Consistent with the Board’s goal of seeking greater transparency where appropriate, the request for declassification of additional facts to be used in this Report was made in order to provide further clarity and education to the public about the Section 702 program.”

“The Intelligence Community carefully considered the Board’s requests and has engaged in a productive dialogue with PCLOB staff. The Board greatly appreciates the diligent efforts of the Intelligence Community to work through the declassification process, and as a result of the process, many facts that were previously classified are now available to the public.”

The final PCLOB report on the Section 702 program included several recommendations concerning transparency, including proposals for further specific declassification actions. Those proposals remain pending.

 

NSA Releases NSPD-54 on Cybersecurity Policy

In January 2008, the Bush Administration issued the Top Secret National Security Presidential Directive 54 on Cybersecurity Policy which “establishes United States policy, strategy, guidelines, and implementation actions to secure cyberspace.”

Despite its relevance to a central public policy issue, both the Bush and Obama Administrations had refused to release the Directive.

But last week, in response to a five-year Freedom of Information Act effort by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the National Security Agency released a lightly redacted version of the document, most of which had been unclassified all along.

“This Directive, which is the foundational legal document for all cybersecurity policies in the United States, evidences government efforts to enlist private sector companies, more broadly monitor Internet activity, and develop offensive cybersecurity capability,” said EPIC in its release of the document.

House Intelligence Bill Fumbled Transparency

Intelligence community whistleblowers would have been able to submit their complaints to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) under a proposed amendment to the intelligence authorization act that was offered last week by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

This could have been an elegant solution to the whistleblowing conundrum posed by Edward Snowden. It made little sense for Snowden to bring his concerns about bulk collection of American phone records to the congressional intelligence committees, considering that they had already secretly embraced the practice.

The PCLOB, by contrast, has staked out a position as an independent critical voice on intelligence policy. (And it has an unblemished record for protecting classified information.) The Board’s January 2014 report argued cogently and at length that the Section 215 bulk collection program was likely unlawful as well as ineffective.

In short, the PCLOB seemed like a perfect fit for any potential whistleblower who might have concerns about the legality or propriety of current intelligence programs from a privacy or civil liberties perspective.

But when Rep. Gabbard offered her amendment to the intelligence authorization act last week, it was not voted down– it was blocked. The House Rules Committee declared that the amendment was “out of order” and could not be brought to a vote on the House floor.

Several other amendments on transparency issues met a similar fate. These included a measure proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff to require reporting on casualties resulting from targeted killing operations, a proposal to disclose intelligence spending at the individual agency level, and another to require disclosure of the number of U.S. persons whose communications had been collected under FISA, among others.

In dismay at this outcome, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and I lamented the “staggering failure of oversight” in a May 30 op-ed. See The House Committee on Intelligence Needs Oversight of Its Own, MSNBC.

The House did approve an amendment offered by Rep. John Carney (D-DE) to require the Director of National Intelligence “to issue a report to Congress on how to improve the declassification process across the intelligence community.” While the DNI’s views on the subject may indeed be of interest, the amendment failed to specify the problem it intended to address (erroneous classification standards? excessive backlogs? something else?), and so it is unclear exactly what is to be improved.

However, a more focused classification reform program may be in the works.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that he would introduce “a comprehensive security clearance reform bill” that would also address the need to shrink the national security classification system.

The Thompson bill, which is to be introduced “in the coming weeks,” would “greatly expand the resources and responsibilities of the Public Interest Declassification Board,” Rep. Thompson said during the House floor debate on the intelligence bill on May 30.

“A well-resourced and robust Board is essential to increasing accountability of the intelligence community,” he said.

CIA Seeks More Time to Declassify Interrogation Documents

The Central Intelligence Agency today asked a court to allow more time to declassify its response to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) activities, which itself is undergoing a time-consuming declassification review.

“This complex process requires the careful review of over 500 pages of highly classified material. In addition, sufficient time must be allowed not only for coordination with other agencies, but — after completion of declassification review — for implementation of security measures to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel and facilities overseas,” according to a May 15 motion filed by the government in a FOIA lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

“Due to the fluid nature of this process, aspects of which are beyond the CIA’s control, the Agency does not yet have a firm date by which it can complete the processing of the CIA Response [to the SSCI report] and the so-called Panetta Report, although it hopes the declassification review and accompanying processing of those documents can be completed this summer.”

The CIA therefore requested an extension of time to respond, to which the ACLU plaintiffs did not consent.

With respect to the Senate Intelligence Committee report itself, the government promised an “expeditious” declassification review of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions.

“While all declassification decisions are guided by the need to protect national security interests, the President has expressed a clear intent to declassify as much of the executive summary, findings, and conclusions of the SSCI Report as possible, and intends the declassification process to be expeditious,” the government motion said.

According to an April 18 letter from then-White House counsel Katherine Ruemmler, appended to the new motion, “The President supports making public the Committee’s important review of the historical RDI program, as he believes that public scrutiny and debate will help to inform the public understanding of the program and to ensure that such a program will not be contemplated by a future administration.

History of 1953 CIA Covert Action in Iran to be Published

In 1989, the Department of State published a notorious volume that purported to document U.S. foreign policy towards Iran in the early Eisenhower Administration. The volume triggered an avalanche of criticism because it omitted any mention of the CIA’s role in a 1953 covert action that helped overthrow the government of Iran.

Later this year, after the passage of more than two decades, the State Department will rectify that error by publishing a supplemental volume of declassified documents in its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that is expected to fill in the missing pieces of the documentary record of the 1953 coup against the Mossadeq government of Iran.

The publication of the 1989 Iran volume was a milestone in the history of U.S. government secrecy that prompted widespread outrage and ridicule, but it also inspired remedial efforts that had some lasting impact.

The episode was recounted in detail in an impressive history of the FRUS series that was also published by the State Department last year (Chapter 10).

“FRUS historians could have been more assertive in their efforts to promote greater openness in the 1980s,” the FRUS history candidly observed. “They should have recognized that the Iran volume was too incomplete to be published without damaging the series’s reputation, consulted with stakeholders across the government and the academic community, and devised alternatives to releasing an unacceptable volume.”

Ironically, the defects in the official Iran history generated more broad public attention to questions of diplomatic history than the subject had received for many years.

“The ostensibly authoritative” FRUS volume on Iran “is ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark — or the ghost,” the New York Times editorialized in 1990.

“We are poisoning the wells of our historical memory,” wrote Senator Daniel P. Moynihan in the New York Review of Books at the time. “The secrecy system has gone loony.”

On the plus side, the scandal over the Iran history galvanized efforts by historians and others to demand a higher standard of fidelity in official history. Those efforts led directly to the enactment of a 1991 statute dictating that the Foreign Relations of the United States series shall provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.”

The forthcoming publication of the FRUS retrospective volume on Iran was noted in a new annual report from the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation.

It was confirmed by Historian of the State Department, Dr. Stephen Randolph, who told Secrecy News that the volume was expected to be released this summer, barring unforeseen events, along with another long-deferred collection on Chile, 1969-1973.

An initial selection of recently declassified CIA records on the 1953 coup with related background material was posted last year by the National Security Archive.

“The issue is more than academic,” wrote the Archive’s Malcolm Byrne. “Political partisans on all sides, including the Iranian government, regularly invoke the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country’s historical trajectory, whether the United States can be trusted to respect Iran’s sovereignty, or whether Washington needs to apologize for its prior interference before better relations can occur.”

 

Countering CIA’s Conflict of Interest in Declassification

Last week the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to submit the 480-page executive summary, findings and conclusions of its five-year investigation into the post-9/11 CIA Detention and Interrogation Program for declassification review. But in an obvious conflict of interest, the review is expected to be performed by the CIA itself.

“The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair the Senate Intelligence Committee, in an April 3 statement. “This is not what Americans do.”

The standard process for declassification therefore puts the CIA in the awkward and untenable position of deciding whether to enable (or to prevent) the release of information that portrays the Agency itself, or some of its personnel, as having engaged in behavior that was brutal, lawless, and unaccountable.

Instead, it is the White House, not the CIA, that should lead the declassification process, said Sen. Feinstein, as reported today by McClatchy Newspapers.

“As this report covers a covert action program under the authority of the President and National Security Council, I respectfully request that the White House take the lead in the declassification process,” Sen. Feinstein wrote. (Feinstein: CIA should not lead declassification review of report about interrogation tactics by Ali Watkins, McClatchy, April 8).

However, it may not be possible to exclude CIA from the declassification process altogether, since it was CIA that generated and classified most or all of the information at issue. While the President certainly has the authority to declassify the report, the White House would be unlikely to possess the detailed knowledge of the underlying records that would be needed to do so independently.

But there are ways to minimize and counteract CIA’s conflict of interest in declassification.

First of all, the Senate Intelligence Committee will be in a position to make its own judgment as to the validity of any CIA redactions of the report. Unlike the typical FOIA requester who pursues a document he has never seen, the Senate Committee knows exactly what is in the report, which it produced. If CIA moves to withhold information in ways that are frivolous, questionable or unfounded in genuine national security concerns, the Committee will recognize that immediately and will be able to elevate those specific disagreements with the CIA to the White House for resolution.

Another possible option would be for the Senate Committee to engage the services of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB).

That Board’s statutory purpose is, among other things, “To review and make recommendations to the President in a timely manner with respect to any congressional request, made by the committee of jurisdiction, to declassify certain records or to reconsider a declination to declassify specific records.”

While the PIDB, which is made up of non-governmental personnel, cannot declassify anything on its own authority, it could serve to backstop the regular declassification process with an independent perspective, and could also provide political cover for the President to overrule an unwarranted refusal to declassify.

In 2006, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the Public Interest Declassification Board to review an Administration decision to classify portions of two Committee reports on prewar intelligence on Iraq. At the time, the Board said it doubted that it could carry out the review without White House authorization.

So Senators Ron Wyden and Russ Feingold introduced legislative language to clarify that the Board is authorized to review declassification proposals — or evaluate agency refusals to declassify — at the initiative of a congressional committee of jurisdiction. Their measure was enacted into law in the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act.

While this function has never yet been performed by the Board, it remains available to Congress at its discretion.

“The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission,” wrote PIDB chair Amb. Nancy E. Soderberg in a November 2012 letter to President Obama transmitting a Board report.

“The system is compromised by over-classification and, not coincidentally, by increasing instances of unauthorized disclosures. This undermines the credibility of the classification system, blurs the focus on what truly requires protection, and fails to serve the public interest. Notwithstanding the best efforts of information security professionals, the current system is outmoded and unsustainable; transformation is not simply advisable but imperative,” she wrote.

“Too Mild a Nuclear Option”? National Security in the 1970s

U.S. nuclear weapons strategy evolved during the Nixon administration from a reflexive policy of massive retaliation against a Soviet attack to a diverse range of options for more limited nuclear strikes. The transition was not without some bumps.

A declassified 1974 memo recorded that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger at first needed some persuading about the efficacy of limited strikes.

Kissinger “expressed concern that many of the options appeared to him as too timid. He judged that nuclear use must have a decisive military effect in order to achieve the desired political goal– convince enemy to stop.”

“Too mild a nuclear option is likely to convince the enemy to persevere, or respond tit for tat, or both,” Kissinger said, as paraphrased in the 1974 Pentagon memo.

The formerly Top Secret memo (document 36) is one of many that appeared in a richly informative, 1,000-page new volume of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on National Security Policy, 1973-1976 that was released this week.

Kissinger was soon convinced of the need for greater flexibility, and presented the argument himself to President Nixon.

“The concept that we could ‘win’ a war through virtually unlimited nuclear exchanges has become increasingly irrational as the Soviets acquired the capability to destroy the United States– even if the U.S. were to strike first,” he wrote in a memorandum to the President (document 30). “This has resulted in concern that such a strategy is no longer credible and that it detracts from our overall deterrent.”

The proposed new nuclear policy would therefore provide “for the development of a broad range of limited options aimed at terminating war on terms acceptable to the U.S. at the lowest level of conflict feasible.” Still, it would preserve “the major SIOP-type options in the event that escalation cannot be controlled.”

Kissinger asked President Nixon to approve the proposed steps and “authorize me to sign” the new nuclear weapons policy. Nixon did approve, but he wrote that “RN will sign.”

The FRUS volume is full of impressive, candid and chatty source documents on the diverse national security issues of the time, including anti-satellite weapons, the notorious “Team B” competitive analysis project that challenged CIA assessments of Soviet military strength, the Glomar Explorer effort to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, and the growing threat of Soviet surveillance and interception of U.S. communications.

The fear that Soviets were monitoring U.S. telephone communications inspired a concerted effort to improve communications security against espionage and the invasion of privacy.

“The President… recognizes that U.S. citizens and institutions should have a reasonable expectation of privacy from foreign or domestic intercept when using the public telephone system,” according to National Security Decision Memorandum 338 of September 1, 1976 (document 180).

The Foreign Relations of the United States series has been an important driver of the declassification process, identifying high-value historical records for declassification review. While it sometimes represents the state of the art in declassification, other times it lags behind, probably due to the painfully slow pace of the review and production process. (The latest volume was under declassification review from 2007 to 2014.)

In some peculiar cases, FRUS both leads and lags in declassification. So, for example, the new FRUS volume includes a copy of the 1976 National Security Decision Memorandum 333 on “Enhanced Survivability of Critical U.S. Military and Intelligence Space Systems” (document 91). The newly published document includes two declassified paragraphs that had been withheld from public release as recently as 2008. Incongruously, however, the new FRUS version of NSDM 333 also withholds two lines concerning threats against U.S. satellites that it mistakenly says were “not declassified.” In fact, those lines were declassified years ago in the NSDM 333 that is available from the Ford Presidential Library. The two contrasting and complementary versions of NSDM 333 can be viewed here and here.

Newly Declassified Intelligence Satellite Imagery is Hard to Access

The declassification of historical intelligence satellite imagery has been a boon to scientists, environmentalists and other researchers since it began with President Clinton’s executive order 12951. 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 archaeologist Jason Ur.

But last year’s declassification of imagery from the KH-9 HEXAGON intelligence satellite will be slower to generate any such revolutionary impact because the newly declassified images are so hard to access and to use.

The KH-9 imagery was successfully transferred from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the National Archives. But in order to protect the perishable film it must be maintained in cold storage, and so it was all sent to a National Archives facility in Lenexa, Missouri Kansas. Researchers must make their best guess as to what images they are seeking, and then order the originals to be transferred from cold storage. It’s a slow and cumbersome process.

The larger policy issue is that the archival burden on the National Archives and Records Administration is growing faster than the available resources. The task of curating the nation’s documentary heritage appears to be escalating out of control. Meanwhile, the Archives is literally running out of space. Last month, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced the closure of three NARA facilities “as part of ongoing budget adjustments.”

*    *    *

Recently, one concerned researcher shared his frustrations about the current procedures for obtaining declassified satellite imagery. Secrecy News forwarded his comments to the National Archives and Records Administration, and a NARA official provided an annotated response, reproduced below.

Researcher: Since the [KH-9 HEXAGON] film is original negative, it was all shipped to Lenexa, Kansas.

NARA: Correct.  There is a potential that some of the film was not acetate and as such didn’t require cold storage but we did not have the resources to review each of the 14,685 cans to determine the base format and we erred on the side of caution in determining where to store it.

Researcher: NGA DID make available to NARA under the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] the imagery, and finding aids, which are image mosaic overlays on maps 1:100,0000.  These are completely useless.

NARA: There was no MOU for this particular transfer.  Previous transfers had MOUs because there were multiple sets of records which were being distributed between NARA, NGA, and USGS. I think that there is some confusion between the past transfers and this one.  For this transfer we were provided with frame metadata.  The overlays referenced here do not index KH-9 film, they only index the airborne imagery previously transferred from NGA.

Researcher: There is also a CD-ROM which can be loaded onto a flash drive containing an ASCII file with mission date, pass frame, lat-long footprints, in an Excel format. But there is no way to know if the images are fully cloud-covered or not until the film arrives.

NARA: The CD provided for access as described in the KH-9 reference guide is what was provided to us by NGA.  We know we can make it better but it will likely never provide information on cloud cover by image.  All of our film, except for that indexed by the overlays, requires looking at it to determine quality and potential cloud cover.

Researcher: One must submit that data to an archivist who then converts the info into Original Negative Can numbers.  The researcher then must submit a second request including the ON number and the cold storage numbers to an Archivist, who quality controls it and submits the request to NARA Lenexa.

NARA: As with any other transfer of imagery, there is a process involved in going from whatever index exists to identifying the cans of imagery.  In the case of KH-9, once researchers identify imagery from the frame metadata, we have a can locator which converts the information for missions, dates, etc. to an actual can of imagery.  This can locator is available for copying by researchers, and is available through the consultant in the research room who can provide the necessary information.  It is also available on a hard drive for researchers to use themselves.

There is a need to fill out a pull slip for documentation of use and a Lenexa request form but that is done at the same time and does not require much effort other than writing a can number and barcode.

Researcher: The cans show up a few days later, and an Archivist must then quality control the cans for “supply chain management.”

I have spent a week at College Park just to find this out, and I have yet to actually order a can and see imagery.

NARA: The process for requesting cans from Lenexa is the same for any record stored there.   We submit the requests on a daily basis, the Lenexa staff pulls the items and ship them out the next day.   They are potentially available two days after the initial request.  We do have to take time to document where the cans are every step of the way in order to ensure the security of the holdings but that does not slow the process down significantly.

The biggest issues are those simply related to having records stored offsite–timing of requests, ability of staff pulling the items to find the correct items, and the weather which affects the shipments both during the winter and tornado season.  There are sometimes preservation issues identified early before the records are used but that is very rare and they are generally addressed quickly so the researcher does not have to wait.

Researcher: By the next Friday, the researcher can only have the film checked out for 3 business days, Friday, Saturday, and Monday, then the film must be flown back to cold storage.

NARA: All of the research rooms have a 3 business day hold for records.  This is simply to ensure that records are looked at in a timely manner and are available for other researchers.  There is always the opportunity to extend the period of retention but the researcher needs to communicate a need for that.

The NARA official added a rough estimate of the cost of create a duplicate set of KH-9 imagery to facilitate user access:

“At 14,685 cans, and an estimate of $800 worth of film stock per can, the cost is likely more than 11 million dollars.  In addition, we estimate it would take a dedicated employee some 8 years to perform the work (roughly 5 cans/day).”

“Digitization of course avoids the cost of the film stock, but has its own costs and challenges,” the official said. “We have to try and figure out where we focus our limited resources.”

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.