Site menu:


Photographs courtesy of the National Archives


The classification system was created seventy years ago in an era of paper and later copier paper.  Secret information was meant to be shared sparingly and disseminated to only those few Federal Government officials with a “need to know.”  With the end of the Cold War, the classification system has not evolved to counter new national security threats.  As the information age changed rapidly from paper to an electronic era, the classification system is unable to keep up with the dramatic changes in information creation.  Filing cabinets full of paper have been replaced by gigabytes, yottabytes, and zettabytes of information created and stored within virtual systems.  Managing this unimaginable volume of data requires entirely new policies unencumbered by a Cold War and paper-based mindset.

Classification and declassification are not keeping pace with the myriad of challenges facing the system: digital information creation, access for cleared persons, existing backlogs of paper holdings awaiting declassification review, long-term storage requirements, or the rights of a democratic society to as much information as possible about its Government.  Agencies still review records for declassification line-by-line and page-by-page.  This process is unsustainable and will not work when dealing with petabytes and gigabytes of information.

Available technologies are rarely used to meet current needs; neither are agencies preparing to use these technologies to handle the enormous volume of digital records.  As a result, the Government is currently unable to preserve or provide access to a great many important records.  Agencies should collaborate on policy, share technologies, pilot tests, promote best practices and develop common standards.

That is why we believe the best way to promote inter-agency collaboration, integrate technology, and reform classification processes is for the President to appoint a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee and hold them accountable for developing new methods to modernize classification and declassification. The Steering Committee would be responsible for managing the implementation of reforms required to transform current classification and declassification guidance and practice.

Part of this modernization effort will require pilot projects to test new and existing technologies that can support new policies that allow for efficient and effective classification and declassification.   These pilot projects should begin at the National Declassification Center and would investigate methods for automating and streamlining declassification, away from resource-intensive and inefficient page-by-page reviews.  Later, pilot projects should explore how technology could be used to combat over-classification and improve classification.

The ultimate goal of the pilot projects is to discover, develop, and deploy technology that will:

  • Automate and streamline declassification and classification processes, and ensure integration with electronic records management systems.
  • Provide tools for preservation, search, storage, scalability, review for access, and security application.
  • Address cyber security concerns, especially when integrating open source information into classified systems.
  • Standardize metadata generation and tagging, creating a government-wide metadata registry, drawing on lessons learned from the intelligence community.
  • Accommodate complex volumes of data (e.g. email, non-structured data, and video teleconferencing information).
  • Advance government-wide information management practices by supporting the President’s Memorandum on Managing Government Records.

Policymakers have the opportunity to transform the classification and declassification system to one that meets the needs of today’s digital information age.  The use of technology will be critical to the modernization of the system.


Documents courtesy of the National Archives  and the photograph is courtesy of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.


It is time to allow certain types of historical nuclear information to be reviewed for declassification and public access.  In the aftermath of World War II, the Government recognized the need to keep nuclear weapons information tightly controlled.  Over time, the Government realized that there were two broad categories of nuclear weapons related information and their dissemination controls were quite different.  Policy makers and Defense Department personnel needed to have operational and policy information related to the military utilization of nuclear weapons – but there was no need to give them access to critical and technical design information on how to build a nuclear weapon.  The Government created special access controls and separate classification systems for these two types on information – “Restricted Data” or “RD” pertained to information that could be used to build atomic bombs, while “Formerly Restricted Data” or “FRD” concerned policy and military use.  These classification systems were outside the Executive orders that governed all other classified national security information.[1]

Historical FRD information is of high interest to Cold War and nuclear policy historians.  It includes storage locations, stockpile information and policy discussions of what types of bombs to build, how big to make them, and where to put them, including in foreign countries as part of our military and deterrence strategy during the Cold War.  The declassification of this information AFTER A CAREFUL REVIEW would allow greater understanding of the role nuclear weapons played in our national defense and allow for analysis on their successes and shortcomings.

Yet, declassification review of this information is extremely difficult and complex. Requests for this information are routinely denied, and it is automatically excluded from declassification review under EO 13526. There is no systematic effort to allow this type of information to be considered for declassification, even though much of it is obsolete and no longer has any military or political SENSITIVITY.   Requests for this information are routinely denied WITHOUT ANY SERIOUS REVIEW OF WHETHER THE INFORMATION NEEDS TO REMAIN OUT OF THE PUBLIC’S ACCESS.  The public does not understand this arcane policy, especially when so much historical nuclear policy information is ALREADY in the public domain, perhaps suggesting that the policy is even confusing to those using the system. To be sure, certain of this information should retain the protection of its FRD classification if OUR NATIONAL SECURITY REQUIRES IT.  The Public Interest Declassification Board recommends that the classification status of historical FRD information be re-examined.  A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of this information that balances the concerns of agencies to protect what is needed, while serving the public interest by declassifying more.  There are high costs with associated with maintaining separate and competing classification systems.  There is confusion among agencies WHICH are asked to interpret two sets of policies, guidance, and procedures.  While the Department of Energy (DOE) has sole ownership of RD information, FRD information is jointly owned by DOE and the Defense Department and they are responsible for administering and regulating access to FRD.  But existing procedures and processes have had little effect in declassifying obsolete historical nuclear policy information.  IT IS TIME TO ADDRESS THIS COMPLEX ISSUE.

[1] Restricted Data (RD) information is defined by the Atomic Energy Act as information concerning the design, manufacture, or utilization of atomic weapons; the production of special nuclear material; and the use of special nuclear material to generate electricity.  FRD information primarily concerns the military utilization of nuclear weapons, including storage locations and stockpile information.  As designated by the Department of Energy under 10 CFR 1045, FRD information is classified information that has been removed from the Restricted Data category after the Departments of Energy and Defense jointly determine that it relates primarily to the military utilization of atomic weapons and can be adequately safeguarded in a manner similar to national security information.


Photo courtesy of the National Reconnaissance Office


Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information” and its two predecessors established specific, time-based declassification requirements for all national security agencies.   Despite these identical mandates, a Government-wide approach to declassification remains elusive.  Separate agency declassification programs evolved into a segmented declassification system where each agency reviewed its information and attempted to identify any classified information created by other agencies.  Agencies are required to perform the same tasks, such as completing automatic, systematic, and mandatory declassification reviews, yet their design and implementation of these requirements are disintegrated and lack interoperability, resulting in inefficient inter-agency coordination..  The declassification system has become increasingly inefficient and complex.  Accordingly, the public has become increasingly frustrated and confused by what it encounters when trying to navigate the labyrinth of agency programs.

Declassification performs a service crucial to democratic society, informing citizens and promoting responsible dialogue between the public and Government.  There are significant policy benefits from declassification that can aid national security decisions and diplomacy.  Declassification is a valuable information sharing tool, particularly when information holders must partner with stakeholders outside the intelligence and defense communities.  Information may be the newest and most important policy tool of the modern era, with declassification during operations offering a strategic advantage.  Public release not only makes policymakers accountable for their decisions and actions; it also affords agencies the opportunity to correct misinformation in the public domain and bolster their position in current debates.

One of the main recommendations found in the Board’s 2008 Report to the President on Improving Declassification included the recommendation of creating a center dedicated to declassification.  The center would focus not only on processing the huge paper backlog of records at the National Archives, but would also work to improve the declassification system across government to make it more efficient and effective for users.  The result of this recommendation was the establishment of the National Declassification Center, which has accomplished a great deal in tackling the immense 366 million page backlog of records.  However, many documents still await declassification review.  The NDC’s efforts are often stymied by the needlessly redundant and burdensome referral process, as well as the refusal by agencies to appropriately manage risk.

For these reasons, the Board recommends the President bolster the authority and capacity of the National Declassification Center with specific measures to advance a government-wide declassification strategy.

Specifically, Executive Order 13526 should be amended to eliminate the additional three years now permitted for review of multiple agency equities in all archival records (including those stored outside the NDC).   The requirement of agencies to share declassification guidance with other classifying agencies and the NDC should be strengthened.  Retention of agency declassification authority should be contingent upon sharing agency guidance.  The President should direct Agencies to consult the NDC before prioritizing their records for declassification and transfer to the National Archives.  The Interagency National Declassification Center Advisory Panel (NAP) should have representation from the public, including representation from the Government Openness advocacy community.  An inter-agency effort to develop new declassification review processes should be coordinated by the NDC and be based on a risk management approach.

Without dramatic improvement in the declassification process, the rate at which classified records are being created will drive an exponential growth in the archival backlog of classified records awaiting declassification, and public access to the nation’s history will deteriorate further.  It is am imperative that the NDC continue its leading role in working with agencies and the public to collaboratively look for new technological solutions, rooted in updated policies and practices, that tackle the growing volumes of information, particularly digital information, that await declassification review.


Photograph courtesy of the National Archives


“It is time to reexamine the long-standing tension between secrecy and openness, and develop a new way of thinking about government secrecy as we move into the next century.” -Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997, Senate Document 105-2, Public Law 236.


Document Courtesy of the National Security Agency


After extensive research and discussions with stakeholders in and outside Government, the Board has concluded that the current classification system is too antiquated to fully support today’s national security mission. The system keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long. Its practices are overly complex, and serve to obstruct desirable information sharing inside of government and with the public. There are many explanations for over-classification: much classification occurs essentially automatically; criteria and agency guidance have not kept pace with the information explosion; and despite numerous Presidential orders to refrain from unwarranted classification, a culture persists that defaults to the avoidance of risk rather than its proper management.

To partially address the concerns of excessive classification, we recommend that classification be simplified and rationalized by placing national security information in only two categories. This would allow proper alignment with the actual two-tiered practices existing throughout most of government for information protection security clearances, physical safeguarding, and information system accreditation.

Top Secret would remain the Higher-Level category, retaining its current, high level of protection. All other classified information would be categorized at a Lower-Level, which would follow standards for a lower level of protection. Both categories would include compartmented and special access information, as they do today.

Newly established criteria for classifying information in the two tiers would identify the needed levels of protection against disclosure of the information. Identifiable risk should be the basis for determining if a level of protection is needed and if classification is warranted and, if so, at what level and duration.

The difficulty of applying the current concept of presumed “damage” during derivative classification would be replaced by a more concrete application of the level of protection necessary for sharing and protecting. This change in guidance would reflect how classification is actually practiced by derivative classifiers – deciding how much protection is needed based on the sensitivity of the information to both protect and share appropriately.

We understand that the adoption of a two-tiered model will pose greater challenges for those agencies whose internal practices are more dependent upon current distinctions between Secret and Confidential. We are not advocating for simply eliminating the Confidential category of classification, thereby exacerbating problems of over-classification in the system. Rather, we believe the adoption of a two-tiered model would align the classification system to what is actually occurring in practice throughout Government. Confidential information is safeguarded on Secret-level systems. The Lower-level of classification in the two-tiers will be defined by the appropriate levels of protection needed to ensure the classified information may be secured and shared appropriately. Guidance must be updated and longstanding practices of rote classification in the current system must be redesigned to make classifiers re-think deep-rooted cultural biases that favor classification and instead choose not to classify in the first instance unless a risk assessment proves protection is needed.

The Public Interest Declassification Board will host an open meeting on Thursday, December 6, 2012 to discuss its recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System.  The full Report to the President will be published online on December 6th at  The meeting will focus on the Board’s fourteen recommendations for transformation.  The recommendations center on the need for new policies for classifying information, new processes for declassifying information, and the imperative for using and integrating technology into these processes.  Press and media are welcome to attend.

When: Thursday, December 6, 2012 from 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
Doors Open: 8:45 a.m.
Where: The Archivist’s Reception Room, Room 105 in the National Archives Building
Address: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.
(Note:  Attendees must enter through the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance.)


Space is limited and attendees must register via; provide your name and professional affiliation (if applicable).  You will receive a confirmation e-mail from the Public Interest Declassification Board staff confirming your reservation.  Please note that one form of Government-issued photo identification (e.g. driver’s license) is required to gain admittance.

In anticipation of the report’s release, today the Board will re-engage its followers by re-opening its blog, Transforming Classification, where it will post summaries of some of the key recommendations in the report.  Be sure to stay connected to the Board’s activities and look for more information about the Board on its website:

The Public Interest Declassification Board is pleased to announce the completion of its report, Transforming the Security Classification System.  The President asked that we study the security classification system and make recommendations for its transformation to better meet the needs of users in the digital age.

The report will be released to the public on the Board’s website on Thursday, December 6, 2012.

The Board consulted extensively with experts from the Government Openness advocacy community, civil society and transparency groups, archival researchers, and technologists and solicited opinions from distinguished civil servants, Executive department and agency officials and the Congress.  Our efforts were designed to gain a broad perspective on issues confronting the classification system and led to the fourteen core recommendations in this report.

The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission.  The system is compromised by over-classification and, not coincidentally, by increasing instances of unauthorized disclosures.  This undermines the credibility of the classification system, blurs the focus on what truly requires protection, and fails to serve the public interest.  Notwithstanding the best efforts of information security professionals, the current system is outmoded and unsustainable; transformation is not simply advisable but imperative.

We believe transformation will require a White House-led steering committee to drive reform, led by a chair that is carefully selected and appointed with specific authorities granted by the President.  In anticipation of the report’s release, we will re-engage our followers by re-opening our blog, Transforming Classification, where we will post summaries of some of the key recommendations in the report beginning Monday, November 26, 2012.  Be sure to stay connected to the Board’s activities and look for more information about the Board on our website:

Thank You

by on June 13, 2011

Thank you for participating in the Transforming Classification Blog.  The Blog is now closed for comments.  The Board appreciates all of the comments and submissions that were received.

We will continue to evaluate the comments and submissions you posted on the blog as we consider what changes to make on how best to transform the classification system in response to the President’s request.

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

The Public Weighs In

by on May 17, 2011

On April 26th the Public Interest Declassification Board invited you to submit your ideas on transforming the national security classification system.  The Board received the following papers.  They appear in the order in which they were received:

Thank you for your submissions.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these papers as well as papers the Board had developed:

Paper 1:  Using Technology to Improve Classification and Declassification

Paper 2:  Reconsidering Information Management in the Electronic Environment

Paper 3:  Regularizing the Declassification Review of Classified Congressional Records

Paper 4:  Discretionary Declassification and Release of Contemporary National Security Information

Paper 5:  Simplifying the Declassification Review Process for Historical Records

Paper 6:  Stewardship of Our Classified History

Paper 7:  Information Security and Access in the Electronic Environment

Paper 8:  A Half-Life for Historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD)

In addition to posting on the blog, please come to the Board’s May 26th public meeting at the McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building from 10am-12:30pm.

In order to induce a transformation of the national security classification system, the President should set a performance goal that will advance the desired transformation, and then mandate its achievement by executive branch agencies.

Instead of trying to specify each and every one of the policy and procedural changes needed for an effective transformation, this approach would seek to catalyze change by establishing a mandatory performance objective (or multiple objectives) and then requiring agencies to work out the necessary adjustments.

Several questions immediately arise.  First, what is the desired transformation of the classification system that the current process seeks to promote?

My provisional answer to the question would be that the desired transformation should aim to achieve a classification system that has a reduced scope of application (i.e., fewer categories of secrets), a reduced volume of classification activity (less classification), and a reduced duration of classification.  In order to best serve its national security purpose, the classification system should be “lean and mean,” not bloated and arbitrary.  Its dimensions should be stable or shrinking, not perpetually growing.

What are the characteristics of a performance goal that would help to catalyze a change in classification policy?

Any performance goal that is selected should be intrinsically significant, not abstract or merely procedural.  It should be worthwhile as a policy objective in its own right in order to justify and propel the desired changes in current classification policy and practice.  And yet it should be reasonably achievable right now or in the near term.  Vague or idealized conceptions or labor-intensive proposals that have no realistic chance of acceptance will not serve as effective catalysts.

What is a concrete example of such a performance goal?

One possible example would be a new requirement to publish a declassified documentary history of major U.S. national security policy decisions and actions no later than 25 years after the events they record, allowing for only the narrowest of exemptions.  This publication would be analogous to the Foreign Relations of the United States series and to the Public Papers of the President in its professional quality and documentary character, but it would focus on publication of classified national security policy records that are to be newly declassified for this purpose.

As a performance goal for catalyzing transformation of the classification system, this proposal has several pertinent features:

First, the idea that the full record of U.S. national security policy should be regularly disclosed is an inherently powerful one that properly characterizes an open society.  The nation should be able to take pride in routinely disclosing the records of its national security history, including even (or especially) shameful or problematic episodes, and airing them fully and publicly.  This is a worthy objective independent of its potential for inducing transformation of classification policy– which is one of the things that make it a useful tool for purposes of catalyzing change.

Second, this proposal would engage and require the cooperation of the entire national security establishment, including its military, diplomatic and intelligence components.  It would also sweep broadly across different record formats and types of media. To the extent that audio, video, and other records (including congressional records) formed an essential part of the national security record, they would be encompassed as well.

And third, the proposal is both feasible today and it is in significant tension with current classification and declassification policy, which means that it would require and inspire numerous changes in practice.

As noted above, the concept of a regular documentary record of national security policy is similar to the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on foreign policy that is published by the U.S. State Department.  But the FRUS production process is mired in administrative and classification disputes.  It mainly serves a narrow constituency of diplomatic historians.  It is far from meeting its goal of publishing records within 30 years of the recorded events.  Agencies habitually disregard deadlines for reviewing documents for inclusion in FRUS, and they adhere to obsolete classification practices, such as censoring the amounts of half-century old intelligence budget figures.

By contrast, in the proposed initiative for a new documentary history of national security policy, most of those longstanding obstacles could be eliminated by presidential fiat.  For example, the President could set new classification standards for this particular project, ordering that those 25 year old classified records that are deemed essential to a thorough, accurate and reliable account of U.S. national security history will be declassified unless they meet the narrow criteria that ordinarily permit 50 year old records to be exempted from declassification.  This would mean that only information that would identify a confidential human intelligence source or reveal key design concepts for weapons of mass destruction could be withheld from publication in the new series.  This step alone would drastically simplify the declassification review process by making most such reviews pointless and irrelevant.  Also, the kind of missed deadlines that plague FRUS would be interpreted as concurrence by the reviewing agency.

In this way, the continuing production of an official record of national security history, vetted by professional historians (whether at the State Department or elsewhere), would have the catalytic potential to break the current logjam in production of the FRUS series and in declassification more broadly (with indirect but salutary effects on classification as well).  It would generate a newly available series of permanently valuable record collections for the nation as a whole.  While it would not constitute a transformation of the classification system all by itself, it would advance the process of modernizing and rationalizing classification policy, and would help to galvanize further changes.

Many other types of catalytic performance goals could be imagined and adopted.  What is crucial is that they must trigger meaningful and measurable changes in classification and declassification practice in the near term.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the importance of the pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which was mandated by the President in December 2009, and which must be completed by June 2012.  If implemented in good faith, this process should both reduce the current scope of classification and diminish the future declassification burden.  Nothing else on the near-term policy horizon has comparable transformative potential.  But the Review process needs clearly articulated performance goals of its own, as well as active support, encouragement and leadership in order to succeed.



Subscribe to Email Updates