A Deep Dive in the US’ National Action Plan: Declassify National Security Information

In our final evaluation of the government's efforts to meet the open government commitments it included in the 2011 US National Action Plan, we characterized many of the steps the government promised to take as "small." Rather than taking bold measures to address pressing transparency issues, the Plan includes to make commitments that were less ambitious and more easily attained. The Administration's commitment related to declassification of historical documents is more accurately described as something less than a small step, however: the commitment — to set up the National Declassification Center — was something that the government had already completed well in advance of the release of the Plan. President Obama's Executive Order on Classified National Security Information, EO 13526, required the creation of the NDC at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Center began operations in January 2010.

The President gave the NDC a deadline of December 31, 2013 to eliminate the extant backlog of almost 400 million pages of classified historical records. The Center is charged with leading a multi-agency effort to declassify historically valuable classified records in which more than one agency has an interest, and with working to address the massive backlog of classified records previously accessioned by NARA. Although the NDC has made impressive strides toward reducing the backlog, it is unlikely to meet that deadline. According to the government's report, the NDC is working to address the short-fall by, in part, creating a training program to improve future review quality and records handling.

Both the civil society evaluation and the government's own report on its efforts cited difficult underlying factors that are preventing the NDC from meeting the President's goal. The government's report particularly notes the hurdle created by having to meet the requirements of the Kyl-Lott Amendment, which requires additional page-by- page review for nuclear weapons-related restricted data and formerly restricted data prior to its declassification. An additional problem for NDC is the required review for declassification by multiple equity-holding agencies. The report says that the Administration "is looking for ways to address these issues, and expects to continue engagement with civil society about their recommendations" and that they are "reviewing the recent report by the Public Interest Declassification Board, which provides its recommendations on a fundamental transformation of the security classification system."

While we appreciate the government's open discussion of the challenges it faces in successfully clearing out the backlog, the steps it outlines in the report are nowhere near what will be necessary to actually accomplish the goal: eliminating a backlog that continues to grow at an exponential rate. The government could get a good start on next steps by moving from "reviewing" the PIDB's recommendations to acting on the Report's recommendation number 1 — institute a White House- led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee. (We and the open government community have been actively urging the Administration to do this since the report was released in November 2012.)

The evaluators who contributed to our evaluation also made additional substantive suggestions for not only dealing with the current backlog, but also preventing future backlogs by reducing overclassification and streamlining declassification. We highly suggest you take a look at the raw evaluation for a glimpse of just how much work the US needs to do to create a functional classification system.

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