The Case for a National Declassification Center

10.01.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“Without reform in [declassification] policy and process, agencies will continue to spend millions of dollars each year perpetuating an ineffective and inefficient declassification system, while the backlog of records waiting to be processed for the open shelves continues to grow,” according to a newly obtained National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) white paper.

The best way to fix the current system, said NARA, is to establish a National Declassification Center that will facilitate and expedite the declassification process.  The failings of the present system as well as the proposed solution were detailed in “A Concept of Operations for a National Declassification Center” (pdf), dated July 8, 2009.  A copy of the draft document was obtained by Secrecy News.

The present declassification system is not a train wreck waiting to happen;  the train wreck has already occurred.  Scarce resources are currently being wasted on a dysfunctional process.  “The Federal Government is paying to protect records that, at 25 or more years after creation and original classification, no longer contain sensitive national security information,” the NARA study stated.

Quality control is poor.  Non-sensitive information is needlessly forwarded for review from agency to agency, “clogging the system with unnecessary referrals.”  Completed record reviews (including mandatory Kyl/Lott reviews to search for nuclear weapons-related information) are “not accurately tracked, and as a result records are sometimes reviewed multiple times.”

In short, “declassified records are not publicly available as intended,” the NARA study reported.

And things are poised to get worse.  “Over the next 25 years Federal agencies are facing a massive volume (1.7 billion pages) of classified textual records that, based on 2008 review statistics, will take over 33 years to complete initial review, and many more to complete referral reviews and process all the records for public access.  These figures will continue to grow each year as more records become 25 years old.”

The solution, says NARA, is not simply a new policy but a new institution and a new facility — a National Declassification Center.

“Based on the volume of classified records, the need to standardize disparate declassification processes and guidelines, the lack of suitable secure space for agency reviewers and NARA Staff, and the need to replace the aging, substandard classified storage at the NARA records center located at Suitland,… a new facility dedicated to declassification should be constructed.”

The proposed new facility, at a location yet to be determined, would have state of the art security that meets military and intelligence specifications.  It would house approximately 240 people and, for security reasons, would have “minimal public interaction.”

“This facility should include storage for classified temporary, pre-archival, and archival records, space for declassification review and processing, staff and resources to perform archival work on the records, and the Information Technology infrastructure necessary to support these functions,” the NDC Concept of Operations stated.

At first glance, the construction of an expensive new building for declassification seems like an Industrial Age solution to an Information Age problem.  At second glance, too.  But NARA argues that this is the best course available for navigating the conflicting security and disclosure imperatives that are already at work.

The Concept of Operations document did not address the potential favorable impact of a proposed 50 year expiration date for all classified records that do not implicate human intelligence sources, though this should help to ease the declassification review burden considerably.  And the Concept specifically excluded the possibility of declassification performed by anyone other than the originating agency, which would have relieved much of the complexity of the declassification process.

A National Declassification Center is a principal element of the pending draft Obama Administration executive order on classified national security information.