Agencies Are Declassifying One-Time Secrets at a Higher Rate, Archives Reports

President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo

Historians, journalists and public policy analysts likely welcome the latest report on agency disclosures of one-time government secrets issued last week by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Obama administration’s goal of heightened transparency is visible both in reduced numbers of decisions to classify information and in expanded numbers of formerly classified documents made available, according to the 2015 Report to the President from the Information Security Oversight Office.

Executive branch agencies reported 2,199 employees who can act as original classification authorities last year, which is down from 2,276 in fiscal 2014. They did, however, report an increase in original classification decisions, up by 14 percent to 53,425 in 2015. But that is the second lowest number ever, as noted by Federation of American Scientists secrecy blogger Steven Aftergood; in 2005 the number of secrets topped 258,000.

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“There is good news to report,” the Archives staff wrote. Agencies “reported a 32 percent decrease in their amounts of derivative classification [paraphrases of secret information as opposed to the original document] while at the same time they reported a 30 percent increase over the number of pages declassified in fiscal 2014.”

Increased productivity accompanied the transparency: More than 87.1 million total pages were reviewed in 2015, compared with 64.6 million in 2014, and 36.7 million pages were declassified last year, compared with only 27.8 million the year before.

The Archives reported widespread improvements in agency compliance with declassification procedures and new initiatives. “We are seeing that some agencies’ self-inspection programs are very strong, while others still need to improve,” officials wrote.

The total cost of security classification for 2015 is $16.17 billion, the report said, $2.06 billion of which is for the intelligence community.

 “The new data appear to confirm that the national security classification system is undergoing a slow-motion process of transformation, involving continuing incremental reductions in classification activity and gradually increased disclosure,” Aftergood wrote. “Interestingly, the impressive changes in national security classification policy over the past several years have occurred primarily at the agency level. The White House seems barely cognizant of those changes, and did not mention them at all in a recent description of the Obama administration’s efforts ‘to drive openness and transparency in government.’ ”

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