Historians See Crisis in Declassification

Government programs to declassify national security information are not meeting public expectations, the needs of historians, or even the requirements of law, said the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) in a report last week.

A 1991 statute mandated that the State Department publish the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy (known as Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS) no later than 30 years after the events described.  That requirement is not being fulfilled and, the HAC said, is unlikely to be met any time soon due to “substantial delays in the declassification and publication processes.”

“The HAC is not sanguine about the prospects of the series achieving its goal of publishing the majority of the Foreign Relations volumes 30 years after the event in the near future–or possibly ever.”

The HAC, a panel of distinguished historians chaired by Prof. Richard Immerman of Temple University, presented its assessment in an annual report to the Secretary of State.

The members expressed “great concern” that the National Declassification Center (despite “commendable progress”) will not meet the goal set by President Obama to complete the processing of the backlog of 25 year old records awaiting declassification by the end of December 2013.

But failure to complete the required processing is not the only problem. The HAC also expressed dismay that “a substantial percentage of those records that have been reviewed by the NDC have not been cleared for release to the public.  In the opinion of the HAC, the relatively high number of reviewed documents that remain withheld from researchers and citizens raises fundamental questions about the declassification guidelines.”

The HAC said that the National Archives (NARA) needs to exercise greater initiative to address the issue. “The requirements of a transparent society and informed citizenry demand finding solutions. The HAC perceives a lack of urgency on the part of the NARA Administration to find a solution.”

While classification policy is showing some tentative signs of contraction, producing fewer new secrets last year than it has in decades, the declassification process seems to be falling farther behind, underscoring the need for a substantially new approach to declassification.

Instead of a nominal 25 year rule for declassification of most historically valuable documents, the HAC report said, “the opening of declassified records at NARA is trending toward a 35-year if not longer line.”

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