The Dec 2009 Declass Deadline: What Didn’t Happen

There has been almost no criticism of the new Obama Executive Order on national security classification, which itself is kind of troubling.

For a full-throated denunciation, one has to turn to the outer periphery of Newsmax.com, which argues that declassification of historical editions of the President’s Daily Brief “will render impotent one of the intelligence community’s most vital tools.” (“Obama Imperils Intel Briefings,” by Theodore Kettle, Newsmax.com, January 3.)

A more cogent complaint, put forward by PRI’s show The Takeaway on December 22, is that creation of a National Declassification Center “will actually delay the declassification of 400 million pages of Cold War-era documents,” because these were already subject to a December 31, 2009 deadline, which has now been eliminated.

As previously reported (“New Executive Order Aims to Avoid Declass Deadline,” Secrecy News, November 23, 2009, and by the Boston Globe, Nov. 29, and the Associated Press, Dec. 20), there was a December 31 deadline for automatic declassification of historical records that required referral to more than one agency, and this deadline created some urgency for completion of the new Executive Order, which superseded it.

But even if the deadline had come into effect, officials told Secrecy News, the affected pages would still not have been released to the public.  They said this was so for several reasons.

First, no one knows where those pages are.  There are perhaps as many as 100 million pages (not 400 million) that have been referred from one agency to another for declassification review, but they are not systematically tracked and so they could not be systematically released.

Second, Congress has effectively barred bulk declassification and disclosure by means of the 1999 Kyl-Lott Amendment, which required the painstaking review or certification of all declassified records to ensure that they do not contain any inadvertently released nuclear weapons-related information.  (If Congress wanted to facilitate declassification of historical records, repeal of the Kyl-Lott Amendment would be a good place to start.)

Third, the National Archives lacks the capacity to process large volumes of declassified records for public release.  Even if fully declassified, the affected records would take years to process for disclosure to the public.

In short, the declassification program is seriously messed up, and it has been for many years.  The new National Declassification Center may help to straighten it out.  Significantly, the President ordered that the present backlog of 400 million pages shall not only be declassified over the next four years but also “shall be addressed in a manner that will permit public access to all declassified records.”

To make good on this commitment, the Obama Administration is said to be considering a significant increase in its request for declassification funding for FY 2011.

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