Moving Beyond “A Declassification System That Does Not Work”

02.22.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Executive branch agencies have spent more than a billion dollars on declassification of government records in recent years, but the results have been unsatisfactory, requiring a change in declassification policy and procedure.

“Between 1997 and 2007 the Federal Government acknowledges spending $1.343 billion on declassification,” reported Michael J. Kurtz, Assistant Archivist at the National Archives, in a newly disclosed briefing (pdf).  “This does not include the monies spent by the Intelligence Community on declassification,” an amount that is considered classified.

Despite the enormous expenditure of money, there is a large and growing backlog of records awaiting declassification.

“The Federal government has 408 million pages of historical records that are 25 years old and older at the National Archives and Records Administration that are still classified and an estimated 1.24 billion pages of historical records in agency custody which need to be reviewed and declassified over the next 25 years,” Mr. Kurtz said.

“Without reform in policy and process,” he said, “billions of dollars will be spent perpetuating a declassification system that does not work, while the backlog of records awaiting processing for the open shelves will continue to grow.”

Mr. Kurtz spoke at a November 2009 government conference on records management.  Slides from his presentation were released earlier this month.

Having characterized the problem, Mr. Kurtz went on to describe NARA’s conception of the solution — a National Declassification Center.  The Center, he said, will “enable efficient and effective agency review” while improving quality control and productivity.  The Center was in fact established by President Obama’s executive order 13526 on December 29, 2009 and was announced by the National Archivist on December 30, 2009.  It began initial operations last month.

From an outside perspective, the declassification challenge goes at least one level deeper than what Mr. Kurtz described in his briefing.  The problem is not simply one of inefficiency or a lack of interagency coordination.  It is that agencies are adhering to erroneous classification policies that obstruct and defeat the declassification process.

One convenient example of such a classification error is the secrecy of Intelligence Community declassification costs, as noted by Mr. Kurtz.  Any government employee who seriously believes that the disclosure of declassification spending by intelligence agencies could cause “damage to the national security” needs to be reassigned to a non-national security function.  No more public money should be wasted to enforce such obvious misunderstandings.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review prescribed in executive order 13526 (sec. 1.9), which requires a top to bottom “scrub” of all agency classification policies over the next two years, may help to streamline the declassification process by eliminating these kinds of errors in classification judgment.