NARA automatic declassification flawed but better than status quo

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Over-classification in the federal archives, as in daily operations, is an enduring problem that more than one president has attempted to tackle. A proposed rule (.pdf) from the National Archives and Records Administration--required under executive order 13526, signed by President Barack Obama in December 2009--is a decent enough attempt.

Under the rule, classified records in NARA's custody that have not been reviewed and properly exempted from declassification by an equity holder would be automatically declassified on December 31 of the year that is 25 years from the date of the most recent record within a group of files.

An agency head could delay automatic declassification for up to 5 years, if the record is in a form of media that "make[s] a review for possible declassification exemptions more difficult or costly." Also, automatic declassification could be delayed up to a year if classified information requires additional review, beyond that of the primary reviewing agency.

As Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog notes, this is not the first time an administration has attempted to institute a 25 year automatic declassification rule--President Bill Clinton signed executive order 12958, which had a similar requirement.

"Unfortunately, that Clinton requirement was implemented imperfectly or not at all, and some of the sharper edges of automatic declassification have been blunted by the Bush and Obama Administrations (and by Congress)," Aftergood writes.

He also criticizes the proposed rule for staying silent on the "fifty year rule" established in the Obama order, which requires that records exempted from automatic declassification at the 25-year review be declassified a quarter century later, except should the information identify a confidential human intelligence source or key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction.

Still, even an imperfect automatic declassification rule implemented wholeheartedly should be an incremental improvement over the current state, in which the CIA's declassification of a World War I-era secret ink recipe is touted as an outstanding example of openness. The government could barely bring itself to officially issue the Pentagon Papers in completely unredacted form. (This has led to an amusing guessing game over what the 11 words NARA said it would censor, but didn't, were.)

Comments on the proposed NARA rule are due by September 6. - Dave