NARA seeks feedback on declassification priorities

Agency lays out draft plan for National Declassification Center priorities

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) wants feedback on its draft plan for how the agency’s new National Declassification Center should prioritize its work.

NARA’s plan is meant to guide the new center as it works to declassify and make available for release classified federal records and presidential materials. The government has a huge backlog that has long frustrated historians, researchers, and advocates of open government.

The stated mission of the center is "to align people, processes, and technologies to advance the declassification and public release of historically valuable permanent records while maintaining national security."

President Barack Obama ordered the creation of the center last December. The agency is asking for comments on the plan through a blog and also plans to hold a public meeting on the draft plan.

According to the plan, the NDC plans to base priorities on:

  • The level of public interest.
  • The likelihood of declassification.
  • Resources needed for declassification.

The center has developed a matrix that places classified records in one of four categories to determine where attention should be focused.

According to NARA, using these definitions, category one records that are high interest and are easy to process represent about one percent of the backlog, while category two records that get a high interest and are difficult to process represent about 90 percent of the backlog of federal records and 100 percent of presidential materials referred through the Remote Archives Capture program. Meanwhile, category three and four records that get less interest represent less than ten percent of the backlog.

The new center will first devote the majority of its resources to the records in categories one and two, the draft plan said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said because Obama has directed that the entire existing backlog of 25-year old records must be processed for declassification in the next three and a half years, the real importance for priorities isn’t for the existing backlog, but what happens after that backlog is eliminated. “There it does make sense to ask what is more valuable what should be processed sooner rather than later,” Aftergood said.

Aftergood said although there may be some broad conclusions that can gathered from feedback, the question of priorities can also be tricky. “Anyone that you ask is going to tell you that their area of research or the book they want to write is the subject of top priority,” he said.

The public meeting is set for June 23.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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