Declassification Advances, But Will Miss Goal

The latest report from the National Declassification Center features notable improvements in interagency collaboration in declassifying records, along with increased efficiency and steadily growing productivity.  Even so, the declassification program will almost certainly miss its presidentially-mandated goal of eliminating the backlog of 25 year old records awaiting declassification by December 2013.

The new NDC report puts on a brave face and presents an upbeat account of its achievements to date.

“As of June 30, 2012, we have assessed 90% of the backlog.  Quality assurance evaluation and processing for declassification prior to final segregation and indexing have been completed on 55% of that 90%,” the report says.  Of the records that have been fully processed, 82% have been approved for public release.

Yet the awkward fact remains that only around 50 million pages of the original 370 million page backlog have been fully processed in the past two and a half years.  The prospect that declassification of the remaining 320 million pages will somehow be completed in the next 18 months as ordered by President Obama in 2009 is quickly receding.

It is shocking — or it ought to be — that the classification system is not fully responsive to presidential authority.  Beyond that, the impending failure to reach the assigned goal is an indication that current declassification procedures are inadequate to the task at hand.

While the NDC has already achieved some difficult changes in declassification policy, something more is evidently needed.

Potential changes that could be adopted include self-canceling classification markings that require no active declassification;  depopulation of the obsolete Formerly Restricted Data category for certain types of nuclear weapons information, which complicates declassification without any added security benefit;  and the surrender of agency “equity” or ownership in government records after a period of time so as to enable third-party (or automatic) declassification of the records.

These and other changes in declassification policy could be placed on the action agenda by the forthcoming report to the President from the Public Interest Declassification Board.

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