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Government is ramping up document declassifications

More than 200 million pages still await review, Archives says.

Three years into the Obama administration’s push to speed document declassification, officials touted considerable progress on a backlog that once was nearly 400 million pages at a public forum Wednesday hosted by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Addressing about 100 people, officials from Archives, CIA, the Energy Department and the Pentagon described how digital communications, better training and a commitment among agencies to look out for each other’s interests have helped them make major inroads in processing the backlog.

NARA’s National Declassification Center -- which in late June released its fifth biannual status report -- was created to help implement President Obama’s 2009 executive order requiring a new focus on publicly releasing historically valuable permanent records while maintaining national security. Public transparency advocates and researchers carefully follow the security and history issues -- protection of human intelligence sources and design details for weapons of mass destruction -- and many showed up with questions at this third annual forum.

According to center Director Sheryl Shenberger, agencies have been able to process 5 million pages a month in 2012, up from 1 million in 2011 and 600,000 in 2010. As of Aug. 7, about 63 million documents had cleared the review process, and some 191 million remained under review for national security reasons but were off the “retrieve and review merry-go-round,” she said.

David Mengel, deputy director of the center, said in the past two years officials have learned lessons from a dearth of standardization in guidance, a lack of interagency coordination and too much ad hoc decision-making that led to a series of re-reviews.

“We see big improvements, huge leaps from where we were two years ago,” he said.

Don McIlwain, who heads the center’s Freedom and Information Act and mandatory declassification review division, said the number of FOIA requests processed governmentwide doubled since 2010. He predicted that new procedures would prevent the re-emergence of an unprocessed backlog. Electronic forms speed the process and reduce errors by letting computers count and label pages, he said. “We are working with agency records management staff on how they process documents before they transfer them to the Archives and the public will be able to make more informed and concise FOIA requests down the road.”

Robert Warrington, who heads the CIA declassification team at NDC, said the president’s order “underlines democratic principles for the people” and stressed that democratic institutions require that secrets be protected. “They are complementary, not conflicting goals,” he said. “Human intelligence is an essential and irreplaceable part of the CIA’s work, not just technology.” Hence, declassifying documents that betray human sources “would violate the pledge we make to them.”

Ken Stein, who heads the Energy Department’s Office of Document Review, said the risk of proliferating nuclear secrets -- on the Internet, for example -- now is “just as dangerous as it was 70 years ago.” Although his department welcomed President Clinton’s 1995 executive order calling for ambitious declassification, the result, he said, was “bulk declassification without review” of some 200 million pages over several years that contained “a significant amount of nuclear design information” that had to be called back and reported to Congress and the White House.

The result was a new set of safeguards under the 1998 Kyl-Lott amendment, including page-by-page reviews conducted by officials trained by the Energy Department. “Many reviewers didn’t know what they were looking for,” he said, and the documents often were not marked as or segregated into batches containing sensitive agency “equities,” as they are called. Even after 3,000 employees were trained, documents containing restricted or formerly restricted data still got through, in part because the originating agencies did not always notify other agencies that their sensitive material was being released.

Under the new regime and an agency “culture shift,” speakers said, both CIA and Energy are using risk-based sampling to get around the impossible task of reading every document. CIA doubled its presence at NDC and Energy boosted its reviewing staff from seven to 35. “We’re all in this together and no agency can go it alone or act only in their own interests,” said Warrington. “And we won’t stop until the American people have access to all they’re entitled to.”

The importance of technology to speed the review process was dramatized by Doug Richards, chief of the Pentagon Joint Staff’s Declassification Office. His team has used information technology to cut the average time to process FOIAs from 182 days in 2010 to 38 in 2012. All requests are put in electronic format, and the hard copies are trashed, so that any Joint Staff member can search them and processors are able to address all pending requests—any delays require special permission.

Governmentwide training at NDC is expanding, according to NARA’s Mathieu Sherman, who described a certificate program “like that for plumbers and electricians” that will enhance the resumes of future agency job seekers.

In the lively question-and-answer period, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists asked when the center might reach a “steady state” when the number of documents being declassified will equal those that are newly classified. That’s not likely ever to happen, answered Shenberger. “There will always be a bit of a gap, but we won’t fall into that 400-million-page hole again. We are tracking those documents that come in and agencies are doing a much better job.”

William Burr of the private National Security Archive said NARA should produce better finding aids for organizing the stacks of papers for researchers; Archives officials agreed.

Journalist Jefferson Morley demanded to know why the Archives in June had rejected a request to release the remaining 1,100 documents related to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in time for the 50th anniversary of the event next year.

Gary Stern, general counsel of the Archives, replied that a 1992 law requires those papers, a fraction of the 3 million to 4 million pages already released on the assassination, wait until 2017. The CIA wants to be responsive, but there are substantial logistical requirements and they don’t have the resources, he said. “I know it’s frustrating. I’m sorry. But there’s not a conspiracy going on.”