National Declassification Center Processes…Explained
Recently, there has been some discussion and confusion about steps the National Declassification Center (NDC) is taking to meet the Presidents goal to permit public access to all declassified records from this backlog no later than December 31, 2013. The Fourth Bi-annual Report indicates that of the approximately 400 million pages believed to be in the back log as of 31 December 2009, only 26.6 million pages have completed all processing and that 120.6 million pages have completed quality assurance processing, including review for Kyl-Lott. I hope that the explanation below will provide insight into how the NDC got to where it is and the challenges that still face us.
Before the establishment of the NDC, the National Archives was faced with the daunting task of processing records that had been reviewed over the fifteen or so years under E.O. 12958. This executive order was important because for the first time agencies had to take positive action to keep information classified. For many agencies, this meant establishing a declassification program with an initial focus on making sure that their information was properly protected. As programs evolved, so did training for recognizing other agencies’ sensitivities. The Department of Energy and Congress also became concerned that restricted data and formerly restricted data (RD/FRD) were not being properly identified and protected. This information is classified by statute and excluded from the automatic declassification provisions of the current and previous executive orders. The results of this “review or declassification or processing evolution” were uneven reviews, missed equities, over and under referral, and the inadvertent release of still-classified information, all of which led to a “Ferris wheel of re-review” where few records ever finished the ride.
This began to change following the establishment of the NDC. The assessment or evaluation process is a quality assurance sample (not re-review) or triage to assess what has already happened to the records and assign the records series to the next stage on the road to completion. This process involves inter-agency teams who examine the review history and sample records in series that have been reviewed. This step is key as those records series that pass this step, have the cycle of re-review stopped and are sent for final indexing of the still-classified material and the release of the remainder. As noted in the report, 120 million pages had crossed this critical milestone as of December 31, 2011.
But what of the 154 million pages that have been assessed, but did not pass this stage? Some series only need to have their Kyl-Lott status verified. Other series need to have a Kyl-Lott review completed or a certification that the records are highly unlikely to contain RD/FRD. They do not require both; that means a record series is either certified as highly unlikely (this may involve sampling, reviewing documentation, such as folder lists, etc) or it is page-by-page reviewed one time by a trained reviewer. Some have suggested that this is an unnecessary and time-consuming step. I agree this is time consuming, and the failure of some agencies to have completed this review or kept accurate records about their reviews is creating a bottle neck; however, it is required by Public Laws 105-261 and 106-65 respectively and is necessary.
There are also a small number of series where the inter-agency team has found missed equity. Using the President’s December 29, 2009 memorandum as guidance, only missed equity relating to the identity of a confidential human source or a human intelligence source; or key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction are considered for referral. These records will get more detailed sampling or review that will serve as a final review before sending to indexing.
I hope that this clarifies what is happening to the records in the back log. It may not always be as smooth or as straightforward as we would like. Challenges, such as ensuring proper review under the Kyl and Lott Amendments will remain. Additionally, “declassified” may not mean that enhanced archival and preservation processing has been completed or that finding aids may not be available. I am confident that our process leads to ending the cycle of re-review, however, and results in the NDC releasing all we can, while protecting what we must.