Taking the Leading Role on Declassification
Spring 2010, Vol. 42, No. 1
By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States
President Barack Obama has charged the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) with the important mission of helping him fulfill his promise of less secrecy and more transparency in government.
This mission for the Archives is outlined in an executive order the President signed on December 29, 2009, in which he directed an overhaul of the way documents created by the federal government are classified and declassified.
The President's order is consistent with his aim of "open government." He has directed that all government documents be released eventually—although some sooner than others, depending on their sensitivity. He has also ordered all agencies to review the way they classify documents.
"Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government," the President said in a memorandum to the heads of all executive departments and agencies. "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing."
To oversee this initiative and to implement the changes, the President directed the creation of the National Declassification Center (NDC), which is now located within NARA.
The NDC will lead the streamlining of the declassification process throughout the federal government. In particular, it will accelerate the processing of historically valuable classified records in which more than one agency has an interest. It will oversee the development of common declassification processes among agencies. And it will prioritize declassification based on researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification.
The President, in his order, adopted the principle that "no information may remain classified indefinitely," although records vital to national security may remain classified for long periods. These records would include information concerning war plans, weapons of mass destruction, human intelligence sources and methods, and in certain cases, diplomatic relations conducted with other nations.
Essentially, this gives NARA the opportunity to eliminate the backlog of some 400 million pages of classified records, including some pertaining to military operations and World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—all of which are of great interest to historians of those periods in our history.
The 400 million pages have nearly all been reviewed by their originating agency, but about 20 percent must be referred to other agencies whose classified information is included in them. In the past, this need for multiple reviews has significantly slowed processing, since the documents in question would need to be reviewed several different times by other agencies or physically sent to other agencies for review.
The creation of the NDC will change this. Representatives from agencies will work collaboratively, on site at our College Park, Maryland, facility, accelerating the review process, reducing the backlog, and allowing us to make materials available much more quickly.
Even after a document has passed through all its classification reviews, it must still be processed archivally. Documents must be organized and arranged into series, for example by subject and date, and put in order to make them easy for researchers to use. In some cases, NARA archivists will create finding aids for the documents.
The NDC will also seek to promote among agencies effective, transparent, and standard processes, training, and quality assurance measures for declassifying documents. This will enable other agencies, as well as the NDC staff, to recognize each other's designation of classified information and interpret them correctly during the review process.
In addition, the President has directed agencies to continually review their classification and declassification guidelines to make sure they are up to date and do not result in unnecessary classification or classification for longer periods than necessary.
You can learn more about the NDC and its work at www.archives.gov/declassification/.
The President's order gives the National Archives a leadership role in ensuring that millions of classified records are declassified and made available for the people to inspect and for historians to mine to enrich the account of our nation's history much sooner than otherwise would have been possible.
The National Archives has long embraced the mission of providing to the public as much access as possible to the records that document the rights of our citizens so they may exercise them fully, the actions of our federal officials so they may be held accountable, and the history of our America so that future generations may learn from our experience.
The National Declassification Center, with its goal of "releasing all we can, protecting what we must," will work to assist NARA in its mission and to help fulfill the President's promise of a more open government.