Simplifying the Declassification Review Process for Historical Records
National security records frequently contain classified information from more than one agency. Under Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information” (the Order), only the agency that creates classified information can declassify it.  If an agency produces a record containing its own information as well as information from one or more other agencies, it must not only review its own information for declassification but must also refer the record to each agency that “owns” the additional classified information (called “equities”) in question. A final declassification determination on information in the record is made only after all agencies have rendered decisions on their respective equities.
For the past 16 years, no single policy consideration has generated more difficulties for the conduct of the Automatic Declassification program than the principle of agency ownership. The principle of agency ownership of information has added to delays, costs, and errors in meeting the goals of the Executive order. The National Declassification Center (NDC) and the Joint Referral Center were created in an attempt to address this problem by co-locating agency personnel at one location to accomplish their independent reviews. Both efforts represent an important transitional attempt to bring order and efficiency to the declassification process. Nonetheless, having multiple reviewers and multiple agencies processing the same record severely limits the benefits of this approach by failing to eliminate the inherent redundancies of the current model.
In many instances today, the final declassification determination on a record is needlessly delayed when the other agency’s equity is superficial or minimal. The rote referral to another agency regarding information that might easily have been evaluated in the initial review obstructs the declassification process and prevents the timely release of declassified records to the public.
The increase in the volume of records subject to review in the automatic declassification program requires a reassessment to the current policy of agency ownership. Since 1995 agencies have attempted to execute the program within policy strictures that never envisioned such a massive undertaking. This cumbersome process has resulted in a backlog of approximately 420 million pages. Given the dramatic increase in electronic records that will require a review for declassification, continuing to use the same antiquated review process will result in even further gridlock.
A fundamental tenet of the current classification system is that each federal agency retains ownership and control over its information, regardless of the information’s age. The basis for that principle is the belief that the expertise necessary to render proper declassification decisions resides exclusively with the agency that created the information.
Extensive training has been underway since the earliest days of the program to ensure that declassification reviewers from every agency can identify those equities of other agencies in their records that require referral. Absent accurate identification, the referral requirement becomes a moot point. Yet while the current system recognizes that training can and must ensure an agency can consistently identify the equities of another agency, it refuses to accept the idea that similar training could enable that agency to accurately implement the declassification policies of the other. Identifying the imbedded information of other agencies is a more demanding task than the rendering of the declassification decision itself, if the specific policies and guidance are understood.
The Board is currently exploring two proposals as solutions to the issue of agency ownership. In both proposals a single, properly trained reviewer would conduct declassification review for all equities in a record followed by a single quality control review. Such a change must be directed by the President, since the current structure has existed in the “Classified National Security Information” Executive orders since 1995. Since agencies are reticent to allow anyone other than their own reviewers to review their information, any change in the Order should direct that agencies continue to write declassification guides and submit them to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) for approval. The NDC and/or agencies would then be trained to conduct their comprehensive reviews according to approved declassification guidance. This process will provide a strong incentive for agencies to submit detailed and specific declassification guides.
Option 1: Single Agency Review
One option would be to replace the current approach by vesting the agency that created a record with the authority to review it and declassify it in its entirety, including any information within the record that was incorporated from other agencies. The agency in possession of the record would have the authority to exempt specific information in accordance with ISCAP approved declassification guides.
Additionally, this approach would include at least three major roles for the NDC:
- Ensuring a robust training program for all agencies on the declassification policies of their counterparts;
- Conducting quality control reviews by sampling multi-equity records to ensure agencies are properly executing their responsibilities; and
- Serving as the focal point for the declassification review of all Presidential library records.
Placing the responsibility for declassifying Presidential library records with the NDC eliminates the inefficiencies of the current system. Presidential records are very likely to contain multiple agencies’ equities, best reviewed for declassification in a comprehensive fashion by a government-wide authority. Placing responsibility for their review in the NDC would help alleviate the processing delays in declassifying these historically significant records. It would also ensure that the agencies staff the NDC with their strongest officers.
Option 2: Single Centralized Review
The NDC, applying ISCAP approved declassification guidance, would become the single government-wide authority empowered to review all historical classified information for exemption beyond its initial automatic declassification date.  Centralizing this authority within the NDC would eliminate the inefficiencies of the existing model. Furthermore, synthesizing declassification guidance and streamlining the review process will strengthen the consistency of declassification reviews. Moreover, it would also ensure that declassification reviews of historical records are scheduled for review in accordance with NDC review priorities and occur in the context of full archival processing that will allow declassified records to reach the public shelves.
Net Result for the Future
This simplified declassification review environment will amplify the benefits of implementing new technologies, particularly context accumulation capabilities, to make the declassification of records quicker, more consistent, and more effective. For records containing multiple agencies’ information, it will be much easier and more efficient to use technology that identifies and reviews for all agencies information than to develop multiple programs or systems that operate in isolation. A comprehensive system would ingest reviewer decisions on all types of records and have the ability to identify patterns and inconsistencies in declassification guidance and determinations across agencies. Reviewing the information of all agencies simultaneously will maximize the system’s corpus of contextual knowledge, allowing the reviewer to produce the most precise and consistent determinations in the timeliest manner.
 Agencies can waive their ownership. In one of the best success stories, the National Security Staff (NSS) has longstanding waiver agreements with the National Archives, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Apart from a limited number of well-defined and easily identified exceptions, the NSS waives their interest in reviewing their equities in most documents over 25 years old.
 In most cases this would transfer declassification authority to a single government-wide authority when records reach 25 years of age. For records initially exempted from automatic declassification under 3.3(h) of E.O. 13526, declassification authority would be transferred in accordance with the timeline outlined in that section.