More than two years ago, President Obama set a December 31, 2013 deadline for completing the declassification processing of a backlog of more than 400 million pages of classified historical records that were over 25 years old. But judging from the limited progress to date, it now seems highly unlikely that the President’s directive will be fulfilled.
As of December 2011, following two years of operation, the National Declassification Center had completed the processing of only 26.6 million pages of the 400 million page backlog, according to the latest NDC semi-annual report. If the Center increased productivity by a factor of ten, that would still be insufficient to achieve its goal.
The looming failure to comply with an explicit presidential order is a sign of the growing autonomy of the secrecy system, which to a surprising extent is literally out of control.
One of the obstacles to a more efficient declassification process is a 1999 statute known as the “Kyl-Lott” Amendment, which requires record collections to be certified as “highly unlikely” to contain classified nuclear weapons information known as Restricted Data or Formerly Restricted Data. In many cases, today’s backlogged records were not certified as required by the originating agencies and therefore they must now undergo an additional review.
“This unexpected review step will certainly impact our ability to complete all declassification processing by the deadline,” according to the new semi-annual report from the National Declassification Center.
The need for interagency cooperation to deal with the backlog of historical records awaiting declassification was anticipated by President Obama. “The Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, and the Director of National Intelligence shall provide the Archivist of the United States with sufficient guidance to complete this task,” he wrote in a December 29, 2009 memo.
And in fact, agencies have devoted increased efforts to declassification. “Once the enormity of the Kyl-Lott challenge was realized, many participating agencies have stepped up to ensure that their records meet this requirement,” according to NDC Director Sheryl J. Shenberger.
But under current procedures, it is hard to see any trajectory that will lead to elimination of the declassification backlog by December 2013.
One alternative way to proceed would be for the National Archives to seek legislative relief from the certification requirements of the Kyl-Lott Amendment, particularly with respect to so-called Formerly Restricted Data (FRD). Most of the historical nuclear weapons information in the FRD category is of no special sensitivity and its presence should no longer pose an obstacle to expedited declassification. In those cases where the information is sensitive, such as weapons design information, the Department of Energy is currently seeking authority to remove it from the FRD category and to redesignate it as Restricted Data. This would further strengthen the case for amending Kyl-Lott to eliminate screening for FRD, thereby simplifying the declassification problem.