Stewardship of Our Classified History
The current records management system does not ensure those records of historical significance are identified in such a way as to promote their timely review for declassification and public release. With greater reliance on digital records to decide policies and conduct missions, there is a great danger that, unless changes are made, our nation will be unable to document these historical decisions for future generations.
Stewardship of our national security history requires a two-tiered approach: capturing historically significant records at their creation and prioritizing their review for declassification. Each agency leader should establish an agency-wide history program. These programs should instill a greater sense of history in records management by fully integrating agency historians with records managers.
Mission-essential employees should collaborate with agency historians to further define the events and activities of historical significance. Using a continuum approach to information management, records managers and archivists should partner with mission-essential employees and historians to identify file series that detail historically significant events and activities. This process should maintain the provenance and original order of the records to guarantee users and future researchers contextual accuracy. When the records in question are electronic, information technology staff should ensure that the records’ metadata reflect their significance so as to ease future retrieval efforts. The stewardship of national security history demands a strong focus on electronic records management, as future historians will rely increasingly on information to be managed appropriately in the digital environment.
Historians should use these records to compose both classified and unclassified histories. The Center for the Study of Intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency could serve as a model for this approach and act as a facilitator for the history programs of the Intelligence Community. Although individual military units have historians and conduct “lessons learned” exercises and draft after action reports, the Board believes it essential for the Department of Defense to also adopt this integral approach to agency history programs. The historically significant records used to compose these histories should be prioritized for declassification review as these records would be of greatest interest to the public and are most likely to be subject to Freedom of Information Act or Mandatory Declassification Review requests. These early releases will increase public access while reducing the volume of potential requests. Communication between agency historians, records managers, archivists, and declassification reviewers is essential to fostering this holistic approach to records management, which the electronic environment and the information age necessitate.
Improved stewardship of the national security history of our Government would significantly enhance both Government operations and public access and knowledge. Timely access to the documentary record benefits policymakers who can reflect on past agency decisions when developing new policies. Effective records management practices will strengthen their ability to readily retrieve agency history and prevent the loss of historically significant records. Changes to contemporary information management practices would ensure that records of greatest historical significance are automatically identified at their creation, made accessible to users through metadata and enhanced records management, and prioritized for timely declassification review and public release.
Effective records management programs are essential, both to the information retrieval capability of policymakers and to the stewardship of agency history. The resources agency leaders invest in joint history and records management programs can earn real-time payoffs. Just as after-action reports improve future military operations, authored histories can provide immediate assistance by lending historical context to contemporary policymaking. Policymakers should use these histories of prior decisions and lessons learned to inform contemporary policy initiatives and train new staff. The impact of these studies depends largely on the timeliness and comprehensiveness of the historical record available. Agencies should recognize that history and records management are vital to their missions. Agency histories will remind agency personnel of the historical significance of their work, and unclassified versions will increase transparency by providing the public a view into agencies’ contemporary actions
By adopting a comprehensive records management program, agencies will be better positioned to address the challenges of the e-records environment and provide the public with the most sought-after materials. With the massive growth in electronic records, future historians are likely to be buried in data as they attempt to find important records. Employing a continuum model with accompanying metadata tagging will preposition records for easier retrieval by agencies and the public. Moreover, prioritizing historically significant records at the onset will reduce the eventual request burden on researchers, the NDC, and agency declassification offices. Most importantly, improved records management will enable agencies to automatically declassify records without review, as was the original intent of the automatic declassification program.