from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 78
October 1, 2009

Secrecy News Blog:


"Without reform in [declassification] policy and process, agencies will continue to spend millions of dollars each year perpetuating an ineffective and inefficient declassification system, while the backlog of records waiting to be processed for the open shelves continues to grow," according to a newly obtained National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) white paper.

The best way to fix the current system, said NARA, is to establish a National Declassification Center that will facilitate and expedite the declassification process. The failings of the present system as well as the proposed solution were detailed in "A Concept of Operations for a National Declassification Center," dated July 8, 2009. A copy of the draft document was obtained by Secrecy News.

The present declassification system is not a train wreck waiting to happen; the train wreck has already occurred. Scarce resources are currently being wasted on a dysfunctional process. "The Federal Government is paying to protect records that, at 25 or more years after creation and original classification, no longer contain sensitive national security information," the NARA study stated.

Quality control is poor. Non-sensitive information is needlessly forwarded for review from agency to agency, "clogging the system with unnecessary referrals." Completed record reviews (including mandatory Kyl/Lott reviews to search for nuclear weapons-related information) are "not accurately tracked, and as a result records are sometimes reviewed multiple times."

In short, "declassified records are not publicly available as intended," the NARA study reported.

And things are poised to get worse. "Over the next 25 years Federal agencies are facing a massive volume (1.7 billion pages) of classified textual records that, based on 2008 review statistics, will take over 33 years to complete initial review, and many more to complete referral reviews and process all the records for public access. These figures will continue to grow each year as more records become 25 years old."

The solution, says NARA, is not simply a new policy but a new institution and a new facility -- a National Declassification Center.

"Based on the volume of classified records, the need to standardize disparate declassification processes and guidelines, the lack of suitable secure space for agency reviewers and NARA Staff, and the need to replace the aging, substandard classified storage at the NARA records center located at Suitland,... a new facility dedicated to declassification should be constructed."

The proposed new facility, at a location yet to be determined, would have state of the art security that meets military and intelligence specifications. It would house approximately 240 people and, for security reasons, would have "minimal public interaction."

"This facility should include storage for classified temporary, pre-archival, and archival records, space for declassification review and processing, staff and resources to perform archival work on the records, and the Information Technology infrastructure necessary to support these functions," the NDC Concept of Operations stated.

At first glance, the construction of an expensive new building for declassification seems like an Industrial Age solution to an Information Age problem. At second glance, too. But NARA argues that this is the best course available for navigating the conflicting security and disclosure imperatives that are already at work.

The Concept of Operations document did not address the potential favorable impact of a proposed 50 year expiration date for all classified records that do not implicate human intelligence sources, though this should help to ease the declassification review burden considerably. And the Concept specifically excluded the possibility of declassification performed by anyone other than the originating agency, which would have relieved much of the complexity of the declassification process.

A National Declassification Center is a principal element of the pending draft Obama Administration executive order on classified national security information.


The Supreme Court has not yet indicated whether it will review a Freedom of Information Act ruling requiring the Department of Defense to disclose certain photographs of alleged detainee abuse to the American Civil Liberties Union. If it declines to do so, a federal appeals court order that directed release of the photographs will stand.

Though not strictly a legal consideration, there is a potency to photographic images that can make them weapons in the struggle for popular opinion as a foundation and an adjunct to military operations. In opposing their release, the government contends that the photographs sought by the ACLU could be used to incite violence against U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

An old 1979 U.S. Army manual on psychological operations observed that images of brutal behavior committed by enemy terrorists can "reverberate against the practitioner, making him repugnant to his own people, and all others who see the results of his heinous savagery." Distribution of such images among the population "will give them second thoughts about the decency and honorableness of their cause [and] make them wonder about the righteousness of their ideology."

"The enemy may try to rationalize and excuse its conduct, but in so doing, it will compound the adverse effect of its actions, because it can never deny the validity of true photographic representations of its acts," the Army Manual explained. "Thus, world opinion will sway to the side of the victimized people."

This kind of propaganda technique could not be used against the U.S., the now obsolete 1979 Army manual stated, because "The United States is absolutely opposed to the use of terror or terrorist tactics." See "Psychological Operations," U.S. Army Field Manual 33-1, August 31, 1979, at PDF page 252 (large PDF):

FM 3-05.30, the current U.S. Army Field Manual on Psychological Operations, does not address the tactical use of photographic images.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

See also "Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works" by Steven Aftergood, Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 27, no. 2, Spring 2009:

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