NARA could miss deadline for declassification project

The National Archives and Records Administration’s three-year program to evaluate 400 million official historic documents for possible declassification may not be completed by the upcoming December 2013 deadline, officials predict in a new report.

Contributing to the possible delay is the lack of prior reviews of the documents to ensure they contain no sensitive information related to nuclear weapons, according to the latest biannual report on operations of the archives’ National Declassification Center.

The declassification center was formed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and charged with clearing the huge backlog of documents. It had completed processing on 31 percent of the documents, or roughly 123 million documents, as of Dec. 31, 2011, according to the operations report.

The processing includes initial assessments, followed by reviews and certifications. About 70 percent of the backlogged documents have received the initial assessments, but only 44 percent of the assessed documents have completed all processing.

The reviews and certifications are required under national defense authorization laws passed in 1999 and 2000 as well as by a supplement issued to the laws. The reviews must be performed for documents that contain restricted data, or formerly restricted data, related to nuclear weapons.

NARA officials said in the operations report that the lack of such reviews by the agencies that originated the backlogged documents may delay completion of the declassification project.

“The primary reason for records not successfully passing the assessment is the lack of documented review for nuclear weapons information as required by a law commonly referred to as ‘Kyl-Lott,’ or a certification that the collection is ‘highly unlikely’ to contain nuclear weapons information,” the operations report said.

Despite interagency efforts to coordinate and speed up those reviews and certifications, the result is likely to be delays that impact the deadline for the project, the report added.

"Although we will certainly successfully assess all 400 million backlog pages within the next two years (and probably sooner), our ongoing assessment of the backlog suggests we must divert extensive interagency and NARA resources toward addressing prior failures by agencies to address the Restricted Data/Formerly Restricted Data-related requirements, and this unexpected extra review step will certainly impact our ability to complete all declassification processing by the deadline,” the operations report said.

The declassification center also released a list of documents that had completed processing since October and are now available to researchers by request. They include just-declassified records from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Secretary of Defense.

All the documents in the backlog are 25 years old or older.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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