Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Bush Urged to Speed Up Declassification

The "Public Interest DeClassification Board" (PIDB) appointed by President Bush and the Congress published its report today. The Board urged the government to move more quickly to release and declassify files. The panel consists of five members appointed by the President and four by the Congress. With the advent of electronic classified information, the problem has become even worse according to the PIDB. With respect to electronic records, the PIDB observed that government agencies will be unable to meet the deadline of reviewing all electronic records by 2011. The Board identified fifteen specific areas of concern and offered detailed recommendations. While the Board praised government efforts in recent years, it also found fault in a number of areas. One section of the report shows just how daunting the task of reviewing classified material can be:

"... by 1995, a mountain of unreviewed classified
documents —estimated at that time to be nearly 700 million
pages —had accumulated at the National Archives with no
prospect, given the level of resources then available, of ever
being reviewed. To make matters worse, with each passing year
the mountain was growing, and many millions more pages of
such records were held by the agencies as well. To resolve this
situation, Executive Order 12958 (hereinafter, “the Order”)
introduced the concept of “automatic declassification,”
whereby all classified records deemed to be “permanently
valuable records of the Government”—those required to be
legally transferred by agencies or Presidents and Vice
Presidents to the National Archives, including its Presidential
libraries—would be presumed declassified when they reached
25 years of age, unless the agency that originated them acted to
exempt them pursuant to the provisions of the Order."

One significant problem the Board pointed out is that government agencies lack a common agreement on what are to be considered "historically significant" records. The executive order mentioned above was signed by President Clinton in 1995. As noted above it requires that files should be automatically declassified when they are 25 years old. However, various media have commented on the resistance to Clinton's order in the intelligence agencies. Clinton's order did not mean the records would be automatically available as they would still require review; a process that can take years. Merely hiring new personnel to conduct such reviews has taken twelve years. The PIDB itself was an example of a sluggish government approach as it was created by Congress in 2000, but was not given any funds until 2005, so it did not meet and begin its work until 2006. The Board will remain in existence to monitor compliance with its recommendations until 2012. Among other recommendations of this panel are the establishment of a single declassification center that would create guidelines which would apply to all agencies. It also called for all presidential records to be placed in a central location until such time as they could be declassified and released. The Board also recommended that a system be developed to identify "historically significant" files so they could be reviewed and released with greater priority.
The report appears to be silent on a controversy which became public in February of 2006 when it was discovered that the CIA and other agencies were engaged in a covert operation at the National Archives to "re-classify" material that had been previously released and in many instances widely published. Beginning in 1999, the operation continued for over seven years before it was exposed. Over 55,000 pages of documents had been removed from public access at the National Archives by CIA and employees of other agencies operating with impunity at the Archives due to a secret agreement concluded in 1999 with the National Archives. Some of the files taken back were innocuous, and some were apparently seized because they detailed previous activities of the CIA which were considered embarassing. Concern was expressed at the time that some JFK assassination files had fallen victim to this covert operation. Weinstein was unable to identify specific records that had been "reclassified", and referred inquirers to the various agencies involved. Mr. Weinstein was so embarassed himself by the discovery of this operation that he pledged never to allow it to happen again. He asked the PIDB to review the incident, but it is not mentioned in the report issued today. The White House offered no immediate comment on the findings.

T.

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