Declassification Prioritization

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) recently hosted an open meeting to discuss its recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System, focusing on declassification prioritization. PIDB continues to advocate for public discussion on the report. This meeting represented opportunities to highlight recommendations from the report, continue the conversation about the current declassification system, and discuss the topics citizens want prioritized for declassification.

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The meeting also hosted a panel discussion on “Perspectives on Prioritizing Government Records for Declassification and Public Access,” featuring Stephen Randolph, Historian at the Department of State; Joseph Lambert, Director of Information Management Services at the Central Intelligence Agency; Michael Dobbs, Journalist and Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Museum; and Stephen Aftergood from the Federation of American Scientists.

My opening remarks at the meeting were an opportunity to emphasize the importance of the National Archives’ role in this democratic process, and to highlight the work we are doing to eliminate the declassification backlog and modernize records management practices:

When people have open access to government information, they are able to hold government accountable for its actions. This is an essential part of our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1789: “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

The Public Interest Declassification Board is playing an important part in this democratic process by continuing to invite public comment on improving the security classification system. I thank the PIDB for hosting this meeting and for beginning its latest conversation with the public on a topic that is important to the National Archives—helping us improve the efficiency and effectiveness of declassification programs so that we can continue to provide important information to the American people.

I also want to thank Senator Shaheen for her tireless support of the National Archives over the years. She is a true friend, and I am honored to have her here this morning.

Last December, I congratulated the PIDB for its report on “Transforming the Security Classification System.” I noted then that many of their recommendations were at the heart of our mission here at the National Archives. I want to take this opportunity to tell you what we have done to support the PIDB’s recommendations since the report was issued:

First, our National Declassification Center continues to make progress in eliminating a backlog of 354 million pages awaiting final declassification review.  As an agency, we are committed to eliminating this backlog.  The success of the NDC is due in large part to the participation, cooperation, and the hard work of all agencies with equities in the records.  NDC processes support a necessary culture change and the result has led to improvements in the quality of declassification reviews and to increases in the volume of records reviewed.  As the current backlog is eliminated, the NDC intends to develop a prioritization plan for records accessioned since January 1, 2010.  They will ask users to comment on this plan and also allow users to make their own suggestions for special projects that should be considered for declassification.

The NDC and the National Archives also held several public conferences to highlight declassified documents of extraordinary historical significance. With help from agencies, these conferences told the stories of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the building of the Berlin Wall, the role of intelligence during the Bosnian War, and most recently, the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. Please join us here for the next public conference on January 14, “Living with the Berlin Wall,” which will showcase over 12,000 newly declassified documents.

Still, there is more work ahead as our government must find ways to use technology to improve and increase declassification. As we eliminate the current backlog, we want to make sure new backlogs don’t build up.  Our government must also deal effectively with large volumes of electronic records so that citizens may access them.

The recommendations in PIDB’s report support our efforts to help agencies modernize records management in the Executive branch. We have led an extensive outreach program to educate, train, and assist agencies as they make the necessary improvements. We issued guidance to help agencies meet the President’s goal of fully managing their email records electronically, and we issued guidance on managing social media records.  Finally, in September, the National Archives held a “Grand Challenge to Industry” day, bringing government leaders and private sector industry experts and technologists together to begin finding viable, automated records management solutions.

Within our agency, the Office of Government Information Services continues to serve the American public by providing mediation services to resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes. OGIS has assisted nearly 2,000 FOIA requesters and closed over 350 cases in fiscal year 2013. At the policy level, OGIS provided five recommendations to Congress on improving FOIA processing. OGIS developed an online FOIA portal that now serves as the model for the development of a government-wide FOIA portal. This will be a space for journalists, researchers, and citizens to file FOIA requests, track progress, and see the results.

I am pleased that the PIDB is using its Transforming Classification blog to solicit suggestions from the public on what should be prioritized for declassification. Public participation is essential for our democracy to thrive and grow. We are interested in learning what records our users want to see reviewed for declassification, and we are committed to using the resources of the National Declassification Center and the Presidential Libraries to support this effort.

Thank you for your efforts to make our government more transparent and open and for continuing to advocate for your recommendations to make government more effective and efficient.

Thanks to Steve Aftergood for leading a stimulating panel discussion. I was particularly struck by Steve’s own challenge to the traditional prioritization process which he expanded upon in his own blog, Secrecy News on the 25th of November.  Make declassification decisions because of their topicality or “gradually declassify everything in an orderly and systematic way”? Or do some of both? Your thoughts?


5 thoughts on “Declassification Prioritization

  1. Thank you, David, for graciously hosting the Public Interest Declassification Board’s meeting in November and for bringing attention to the important topic of declassification prioritization. As you note in your blog post, the PIDB strongly believes the government needs to find new ways to address the sustainability of the declassification system. We have an interest in bringing attention to and supporting new ideas on how we can work together as a community and find the solutions needed. As the volume of classified information continues to grow, we understand there is an imperative for applying new business processes that manage risk more effectively with new and existing technological solutions in order to ensure the viability of the declassification system. Prioritization is one business process change that allows agencies to better use their limited resources to focus reviews on the most sought-after and important information. We hope everyone interested in improving declassification will comment on our blog, Transforming Classification ( We are seeking suggestions for topics to prioritize and proposals for other process improvements, including whether our own methods for cultivating public input into this declassification prioritization plan are worthwhile or if there are more ways we can engage all stakeholders. Thank you again and I look forward to continued updates on the progress of the NDC and, in particular, the Berlin Symposium this coming January.

  2. It is good to see some progress being made after all these years. It would be good to have a focus on hiring in the NDC. You need good people, and in this job market they are out there looking for jobs. To that end, increasing NDC positions to GS 7-12 would be a good start. The President made this issue one of his campaign promises so hopefully resources will be increased even while cutting back on other spending. That said, an overall systematic approach would be best and with extra resources some topicality could be involved as well.

  3. Dear Mr. Ferriero,

    I direct your attention to the published remarks of Judge John Tunheim and Thomas Samoluk, formerly of the Assassination Records Review Board, published in the Boston Herald on Nov. 21, 2014.

    Tunheim and Samoluk say that “inaccurate representations” from the CIA prevented the ARRB from releasing assassination-related files of George Joannides, a deceased undercover officer. They say that the JFK Records Act requires that these documents be released.

    If the CIA will not do so, it is the institutional and legal obligation of the National Archives to make their declassification a priority.

  4. Mr. Ferriero,

    Please consider the release of the Joannides files. There is great public interest in the Joannides files and they are of big importance to journalists, historical researchers and investigators. The public deserves an accurate representation of their history and you are someone who can provide this.
    Thank you,


  5. Currently, agencies and the Archives review records for declassification systematically by date, beginning with the oldest, without regard to the likely researcher interest in any particular collection of records. The result is that scarce resources are spent reviewing records that almost certainly will never be looked at by any researcher. An alternative approach to declassification review would focus those scarce resources on the review of records most likely to have researcher interest. Other potential benefits of reviewing by topicality rather than date include:

    · It provides a template for sensibly managing the exponential growth in classified records, particularly classified electronic records, which almost surely will make it impossible for agencies to keep up with the automatic declassification deadline at some point in the not too distant future. In other words, if agencies will not be able to review all records that are 25 years old, would it not be preferable for them to review the most topical or important records?

    · Reviewing records by topicality rather than by date almost certainly would improve the morale of reviewers and thereby the quality of their work.

    · Prioritized review almost certainly would increase researcher use of the declassified records. Such increased public interest could, in turn, enhance the value assigned to declassification review programs within agencies.

    · Priority reviews would provide an incentive for greater interaction with agency historical programs in order to improve the setting of priorities.

    · Topical reviews would greatly increase the likelihood of reviewing important records less than 25 years old, such as records related to the Rwanda genocide, which would be very topical, but are only 20 years old.

    · Priority reviews would increase the likelihood that agencies would practice risk management regarding the older non-priority records that are not reviewed before they reach the age of 25.

    As with all changes, there are some real and potential costs associated with moving from systematic to priority-based reviews.

    · Most obviously, some appreciable number of 25 year-old records will not be reviewed for declassification since agencies cannot do everything. Presumably, some relief from automatic declassification of such records would be necessary. For example, the Executive Order might be amended to provide that such records will be automatically declassified when they are 40 years old, without exception. One would think agencies could accept such a categorical cut-off for records that have been determined to have little interest. Likewise, one would think that researchers would accept an extended deadline (with no exceptions) for records that have been determined to have little interest. In the interim, agencies could commit to an expedited review of any classified records more than 25 years old upon request.

    · Most significantly, modifying the current automatic declassification deadline could weaken the leverage provided by that legal requirement to agency review programs seeking resources from their management. However, most of that leverage should continue when management realizes that any records not included in priority reviews would be automatically declassified when 40 years old, without exception.

    · Priority review will be more time-consuming than systematic review because it will be necessary to first find the records to be reviewed. For this reason, it will also be somewhat harder for NDC to coordinate interagency review. However, the final product will be far more useful for researchers.

    This proposed change in declassification review methodology probably would require an Executive Order amendment. However, a test of this concept might be possible under the existing authority of the NDC. Section 3.7(d) of the Order provides that “the Archivist, in consultation with representatives of the participants in the Center and after input from the general public, shall develop priorities for declassification activities under the purview of the Center. . . .” What if the agencies and the Archives agreed that for one year – say FY 2015 – all review would be concentrated on topical priorities as developed by the Archivist? That might allow us to test the feasibility of this approach without significantly disrupting the current systematic review program.

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