Advisory Board Urges Declassification Reforms

01.09.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In a report (pdf) issued today, a Presidential advisory board proposed dozens of steps to promote a more rational, uniform and productive process for declassification of historical records.

Declassification policy must “take into account the interest of ordinary citizens in having as ‘thorough, accurate, and reliable’ a record of their country’s history as soon as it is possible to provide it,” wrote Martin Faga, acting chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board (and former director of the National Reconnaissance Office) in his transmittal letter.

Towards that end, the Board calls for establishment of a National Declassification Center to coordinate declassification activity, to improve its efficiency, and to stabilize the declassification program.

It urges new procedures to identify historically significant categories of records, and to prioritize their declassification.

The Board advocates expedited processing of Presidential records, and asks the President to affirm that historical editions of the President’s Daily Brief are subject in principle to declassification, a position strongly opposed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The report perceptively reaches deep into the nuts and bolts of classification policy to recommend that information classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” under the Atomic Energy Act be handled as defense information subject to declassification under the President’s executive order, a step that would significantly expedite the declassification of historical records pertaining to nuclear weapons policy.

The report adopts one recommendation that was advocated by the Federation of American Scientists in testimony before the Board (pdf) last year, namely the creation and release of a public database of declassification activities.

“All departments and agencies should be required to record declassification decisions on a single computerized system… and within five years to make databases available to the public that contain at least pertinent information such as the titles of the documents and the locations where they are available,” the report states.

Many of the Board’s dozens of recommendations seem thoughtful, well-founded and readily achievable. It is uncertain, though, whether they will find a receptive audience in the final year of the Bush Administration or a champion in the current Congress.

“Improving Declassification,” a report to the President from the Public Interest Declassification Board, was principally authored by L. Britt Snider, the Board chairman until last October.