2020 Declassification Deadline Remains in Force

By December 6, 2020

Classified records that turn 25 years old this year will be automatically declassified on December 31 — despite requests from agencies to extend the deadline due to the pandemic — unless the records are reviewed and specifically found to be subject to an authorized exemption.

Mark A. Bradley, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, notified executive branch agencies last week that there is no basis in law or policy for deferring the automatic declassification deadline.

“Several agencies have expressed concerns that, due to diminished operational capacity and capability, they would likely be unable to complete declassification reviews of their 25-year old classified permanent records before the onset of automatic declassification on December 31, 2020. These agencies have requested some form of relief, such as a declassification delay or waiver,” Mr. Bradley said in his November 20 letter.

But the executive order that governs declassification and the implementing regulations “do not permit the declassification delays or waivers requested in this instance,” he wrote.

Mr. Bradley advised agencies “to adopt a risk-based approach and prioritize the review of their most sensitive records” in order to identify the most important information that might be exempt from automatic declassification.

But the fact remains that any “Originating agency information in 25-year old permanent records that are not reviewed prior to December 31, 2020 will be automatically declassified,” he wrote.

Mr. Bradley’s letter emphasized that automatic declassification applies only to information in records held by the originating agency, but not to information that originated with other agencies. Such other agency “equity” information is supposed to be referred to those agencies for their subsequent review.

Yet although the letter does not mention it, under the terms of the executive order (sec. 3.3d(3)) the identification of information generated by another agency is also supposed to be completed in advance of the December 31 deadline. It is unclear whether an agency’s failure to identify information for referral to other agencies prior to the deadline would nullify the referral and eliminate the opportunity for subsequent review.

While records that have been automatically declassified can in principle be reclassified, that is easier said than done. Though automatic declassification can be performed in bulk, reclassification is only permitted on a document by document basis, requiring in each case a written justification by the agency head.

Last week, the State Department announced the publication of the latest volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series documenting the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80.

Few if any of the newly published records were subject to automatic declassification. Instead, “The declassification review of this volume . . . began in 2010 and was completed in 2018,” the editors wrote.

Categories: classification, Declassification