Ready, set, declassify

DOD, Justice struggle to review documents slated for declassification

Most federal agencies are on schedule to meet President Bush's December 2006 deadline for lifting the security classifications on documents that are at least 25 years old. But two of the most prolific authors of classified information during the Cold War era -- the Justice and Defense departments -- are struggling to review all their records.

Archiving experts say those departments will inspect classified records more efficiently when more of the documents are digital. The current batch of records slated for declassification dates back to before 1982 and is mostly paper. Electronic documents from the current war in Iraq will presumably be easier to scan for sensitive information.

Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration released its second report on agencies' efforts to declassify or exempt all papers created at least 25 years ago that contain national security information. The official deadline is Dec. 31, 2006. President Clinton signed an executive order in 1995 requiring automatic declassification by April 17, 2003. Bush amended the order to extend the deadline three years.

"We believe, for the most part, the executive branch is progressing toward fulfilling its responsibilities for these records by the initial deadline…although a handful of agencies still remain at risk of not meeting this requirement," said J. William Leonard, director of NARA's Information Security Oversight Office, in the report.

NARA officials could not determine whether Justice and DOD will finish evaluating materials on time. The executive order mandates that agencies automatically declassify documents to keep the public informed.

However, the order also recognizes that the information contained in some government records may still pose a threat to national security if released. Agencies can exempt records from automatic declassification if they contain certain details, such as the identity of a confidential source, information that could assist in developing weapons of mass destruction and war plans that remain in effect.

Justice did not have enough information to assess whether it would finish its review by December 2006. NARA said DOD's Combatant Commands, formerly the Atlantic Command, is at risk of not meeting the deadline.

After releasing the report, Leonard said electronic records will pose another challenge for agencies such as DOD and Justice. The downside of e-records will be accessing and reading records created on older technologies. The upside will be automatically declassifying documents.

"We'll be able to increasingly use technology itself to declassify records…instead of the old-fashioned way of having people manually declassify records," Leonard said.

For example, the State Department recently used search technology to pinpoint sensitive words in classified documents.

Such technologies will "narrow down the universe of records for declassification," Leonard said.

With the emergence of those and other technologies, the predicament of retrieving data stored on antiquated systems might be a moot point by the time those records reach the 25-year marker.

"Right now, we're only talking about records up to 1981," Leonard said. "We've got another 10 years before we're confronted with the inundation of e-records."

By 2016 NARA should have a viable solution in the form of the Electronic Records Archives. NARA expects ERA, the national archives of the future, to be fully operational by 2011. ERA is the first effort to save the government's records, regardless of format, and make them accessible on future hardware and software. It will start as a Web portal, but its architecture will adapt to changing technology.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, a research institute and library at George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified documents, said she hopes e-records will expedite the declassification review process.

Rapid declassification eliminates the cost and burden of protecting old information, Fuchs said. Contrary to conventional wisdom, declassification would also make the country more secure, she added.

When the public thinks the government is classifying too much information, citizens stop trusting the administration. Government officials sound like the boy who cried wolf when calls for secrecy increase without justification, according to Fuchs.

"You are more likely to see leaks when people don't respect the classification system," Fuchs said. "Whistle-blowers think the agency is keeping something unnecessarily secret."

In addition, overclassification spreads resources too thin, she said.

Agencies must guard classified information on IT systems in separate rooms with separate employees. Too much secrecy squanders security resources.

"It would be better to concentrate your resources on things that need to be protected," Fuchs said.

NARA's oversight office will deliver another evaluation by Dec. 31 on the progress of the agencies in jeopardy of not releasing all information on time.

Justice's "plan to comply with the declassification provisions of [the executive order] includes a review of electronic records," said John Nowacki, a Justice spokesman.

"We are confident that the department will be prepared for the implementation of the automatic declassification program, including the review of electronic records, on Dec. 31, 2006, and subsequent years."

Joint Forces Command spokesman Lt. Jim Krohne said the command, established in 1999, does not have documents older than 25 years to review. All records of the command's precursor, the Atlantic Command, were filed under Navy guidelines. So the command is collaborating with the Navy to review documents from the Atlantic Command, he said.

The Joint Forces "will continue to diligently work with the Department of the Navy in the declassification process to meet the deadline stated in Executive Order 12958 for any records meeting the criteria," Krohne said.

Opponents of excessive classification say establishing efficient declassification routines now will help ensure smooth e-records declassification later.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said starting the declassification process is the hardest part.

"It's important that [NARA's oversight office] did the report and that someone is looking a year or more ahead to make sure that the government is on track," Aftergood said. "The fact that [it] identified some agencies [that] are at risk of noncompliance makes it more likely that those agencies will comply in the end."


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Is too much data classified?

Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the 9-11 Commission, said the government classifies too much information, which may be why intelligence agencies lacked some knowledge before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"To put it simply, the intelligence community did not know what it knew about al Qaeda before [the 2001 attacks], in part because stovepiping and secrecy prevented the pooling and analysis of all intelligence on terrorism," Hamilton said at a recent symposium.

Hamilton, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke Oct. 18 at an event the National Archives and Records Administration sponsored. The occasion was the 10-year anniversary of an executive order that will soon require the automatic declassification of federal records that are 25 or more years old.

Hamilton said secrecy breeds suspicion. When even a few paragraphs in a document are blacked out, it prompts speculation about what was in them.

"Too much information is classified," Hamilton said. "And the trend is toward more and more classification."

He worked hard to ensure openness in the commission's proceedings. As a result, the its report garnered praise for its absence of redactions, Hamilton said. The public would not have trusted the report if the commission had kept a large amount of information secret, he added.

The financial strain of over-classification is unacceptable, too, Hamilton said. "It is simply not cost-effective to spend billions of dollars unnecessarily keeping information secret," he said. "It has cost this government $7 billion to keep its secrets since 2001."

Technological fixes can streamline the declassification of information, he added. "We need more rapid systems of declassifying information that is needlessly and expensively held secret," he said.

The public and the national security community need more open communications in this era of unnamed enemies in a worldwide terrorism movement, Hamilton said.

"In the Cold War, we assumed that there was a greater risk in the inadvertent disclosure of secret information," he said. "In the war on terror, there may be a greater risk in the failure to share information."

-- Aliya Sternstein

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