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Comments from Trudy Huskamp Peterson, Former Acting Archivist of the United States

by on June 12, 2011

I read the PIDB papers as well as the submissions from the seven commentators.  Rather than comment through a blog on each of the proposals, I decided to summarize my reactions and raise a few additional issues.  I am numbering the paragraphs to make it easier to see the separate topics.

1. In general, I believe the Board is moving in the right direction.  Certainly any transformation must be Janus-faced, just as archival systems are:  looking forward to processes to be adopted in the future while finding new ways to deal with the legacy of past systems.  The PIDB papers recognize that, although not always explicitly.  The aim must be to reduce prospectively reduce the burden while reducing the backlog.
2. Looking forward, the promise of computer technology must be explored, including a process of continuous updating and recording the status of items or portions of items.  The idea of a research laboratory somewhere, whether at NDC or in one of the agencies, is a good one.  The CACI characterization of “self-declassifying documents” is a useful one to pursue.  However, I think these techniques must be coupled with a greatly reduced scope of classification and therefore volume of classified items.  The government needs to be very clear about what it really must protect and then do a serious job of managing those items.
3. One area that is not sufficiently explored in the papers is the problem of declassifying audiovisual and geographic material.  While some of this could be tagged in the future technology system, it would likely require special handling, especially for streaming audio and video where the discrete parts are not obvious.  In the past information in this format has been limited to a few specialized agencies, but it appears likely that many more agencies will use these systems in the future, whether satellite images for flood management, photos from video cams on a battlefield, or feeds to the White House during the Osama bin Laden raid.
4. Regularizing the declassification review of classified Congressional records is needed.  The PIDB paper seems aimed exclusively at paper records, but any arrangement should include the full range of Congressional electronic and audiovisual records (such as video or audio of closed hearings) as well.  And the availability of these records for FRUS compilers is a very important step.
5. Just as the PIDB is now looking at the legislative branch, it might be worth considering whether the judicial branch retains any classified records when a hearing involves the in-camera presentation.  In particular, does the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court retain any classified items?  If so, a process for declassifying those should also be considered.
6. Discretionary declassification and release of contemporary national security information is certainly possible, although in the past the costs have been considerable for entities like the JFK review board.  Rather than set up a separate entity, Congress might give a mandatory instruction to NDC to undertake a specific project.
7. Simplifying the declassification process for historical records—Janus looking back—is essential.  The PIDB paper has it just right:  until the “ownership” question is solved, this referral system will stymie any other reform efforts.  I favor the single centralized review option.  I do not think agency training and manuals to be used by many different entities across the government, even if frequently repeated and updated, will be as effective as a single team that can be held accountable for its work. 

8. The PIDB needs to address the issue of when and how the U.S. Government will protect the classified information of a foreign government. As I understand the system at present, if the information in a U.S. created item comes from a friendly government, the U.S. will consult that government and if it objects to the disclosure of the information, the U.S. will not overrule that government. This means that we vitiate our disclosure laws in favor of a stricter or more arbitrary regime in use in another country. A balance needs to be struck between the objections of a friendly power and the need for the U.S. to be the master of its own records and their disclosure

9. Another issue that needs to be solved is the problem of agencies not turning records over to the National Archives. Although the statue says that the Archivist can “direct and effect” the transfer of records over 30 years old (44 USC 2107(2)), there is no enforcement mechanism. The agencies routinely ignore the 30-year line, which means that even with a single declassification body for records in the Archives, agencies would still hold many records that include information with other equities. In theory the 30-year line could be enforced through an executive order, but those are so routinely ignored that legislation may be necessary. The Constitution Project’s proposed Historical Records Act could be a vehicle for this.

10. “Automatic” declassification at a 25-year line must have some opt-out procedures for information that truly must be kept secret for longer periods, such as information on the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.  But there also must be some final date at which all information can be open:  a “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for documents.  Whether 50 years is long enough is debatable, but the debate needs to occur.   The agencies must quit protecting documents such as the 200-year-old item that the NSA recently declassified.  They need to turn over the original records (for non-electronic formats) not the duplicate copy that NSA sends while retaining the originals and not, as with the CIA’s two major reports on Guatemala 1954, sending NARA the still classified original while putting a declassified version on the CIA’s website.  Furthermore, the records need to be sent in context; again, using NSA as an example, not a sending a selection of random documents (see the recent list which provides no context information) but instead transferring items in file units. 

11. Certainly FRD must be reviewed on its merits not on the mere designation as FRD.  Using the ISCAP process as described in the PIDB paper is a good idea.  However, this should also be extended to RD information when it reaches 25 years of age.  The principle must be that no information is withheld from the American people without review.

12. Finally, agencies need to understand that FOIA is an option for withholding information that does not require the information to be classified.  It appears that some agencies think that the only way to withhold information is to classify it, ignoring the robust provisions of the FOIA.

Best wishes on the transformation of the system.

Trudy Huskamp Peterson
Certified Archivist



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