Office of the Executive DirectorThe Honorable Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Organization of American Historians
112 North Bryan Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47408-4199
28 January 2000
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-3201
RE: S. 1801, Public Interest Declassification ActDear Senator Moynihan:
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) urges you to withdraw Senate Bill 1801, the Public Interest Declassification Act, introduced last October by yourself and Representative Porter J. Goss. The bill proposes to establish with the National Archives a nine-member board (to be named the Public Interest Declassification Board) appointed by the president. The board's responsibility will be to recommend to the Archivist records or materials for declassification.
The OAH applauds the "findings" of the bill. These include the need for a "comprehensive reform" of the federal government's system of classifying and declassifying records, establishing an "on-going systematic declassification of classified information," and developing a means of access to information that will strike "the balance between secrecy and the openness that is central to the proper functioning of the political institutions of the United States." The OAH fears, however, that the provisions of the bill will not create a declassification system that will achieve these objectives.
One of the bill's most serious flaws is that is institutionalizes "targeted" or special reviews of classified material as opposed to establishing a systematic declassification system. The aim is "to establish an effective, coordinated, and cost-effective means by which records on specific subjects of extraordinary public interest" will be reviewed and released. Confining the board's operations to "subjects of extraordinary public interest" will encourage selective declassification, run the risk of "politicizing" the declassification process, and favor the declassification of records for which it is possible to arouse extensive media attention.
Such a policy runs counter to the current executive order covering declassification and to the findings of your 1997 Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Furthermore, as anyone who has worked in the collections of the National Archives will know, it can take years of persistent research to identify all of the records and documents pertaining to an important subject. Selective declassification will very likely result in keeping some records in some agencies classified that may have an important bearing on a subject, and this will mean denying historical researchers and the public full access to records.
A second serious concern with the bill is its budgetary provisions. It requires the Board to request the Archivist to pursue funding. The Archivist, in turn, must request the administration to submit a request to Congress. And it is then up to Congress to authorize and appropriate special expenditures to undertake the reviews and declassification of pertinent records. This is, to say the least, a cumbersome process. Even under ideal circumstances it will mean delays of many years before actual declassification can proceed. It also creates multiple points at which the Board's requests can be delayed or defeated. If the Board's funding is not forthcoming, the Board will be limited in its ability to request declassification projects from individual agencies. This budgetary process in effect creates the possibility that the Board could be essentially toothless in ensuring the smooth flow of declassified records.
The OAH is also disappointed that S. 1801 does not establish a higher standard for openness than what is now called for under the Freedom of Information Act. Legislation affecting the State Department and the Kennedy Assassination Review Panel required a higher standard for opening records, and S. 1801 should aspire to these models.
For these reasons, the OAH believes that S. 1801 is inadequate and in many ways detrimental to the cause of historical inquiry and minimizing government secrecy. We urge you to withdraw the bill before it is considered at congressional hearings in the near future.
OAH Executive Director