From the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

Historical Advisory Committee Reports on Declassification Bottlenecks

Allen Mikaelian, September 2013

The Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation to the Department of State (HAC) has recommended, in its annual report, a thorough reconsideration of the declassification guidelines that govern the release of State Department documents through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Released in June 2013, the HAC report "notes with great concern" that NARA's National Declassification Center is facing a backlog of 358 million pages that are either 25 years old or older. Documents this old are candidates for automatic declassification, but the HAC predicts that NARA's National Declassification Center (NDC) "probably will not complete" the review and release of these documents by the end-­of-­the-­year deadline mandated by President Obama's executive order. The NDC's own annual report is more optimistic, pointing to its recent record of shepherding documents through "quality assurance review" and claiming it is "on track" to complete quality assurance for the entire backlog by December 31.

The HAC, authorized in 1991 to monitor and advise on the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series and review the declassification procedures of the Department of State, is made of representatives of six scholarly organizations—­including the AHA—­and three at-­large members.

While last year's annual report from the HAC largely focused on efforts by the State Department's Office of the Historian (HO) to resolve significant bottlenecks in the publication of volumes in the FRUS series, the current report takes a closer look at the declassification of paper and electronic records via NARA. The report claims that "the opening of declassified records at NARA is trending toward a 35-­year if not longer line." In addition, the HAC claims, "a substantial percentage" of documents have been reviewed but "remain withheld from researchers and citizens." While acknowledging that "underfunding, understaffing, and the increased volume of documents" have all contributed to the challenges facing NARA, "Nevertheless, the requirements of a transparent society and informed citizenry demand finding solutions. The HAC perceives a lack of urgency on the part of the NARA administration to find a solution."

The NDC's own annual report, however, claims steady progress in working through the backlog highlighted by the HAC. In an August 8 press release, NDC Director Sheryl J. Shenberger claimed, "National Archives staff and our agency partners have completed the quality assurance review for national security information on some 278 million pages. Through expedited processes and inter-­agency cooperation, the NDC believes it is on track to complete the quality assurance for declassification on the remaining 79 million pages by the 31 December deadline." For HAC chair and AHA representative Richard Immerman, however, questions remain about the size of the backlog and whether completing "quality assurance review" means the process of declassification and release has in fact been completed.

Regarding the production and publication of FRUS volumes, the HAC reports being encouraged by the "exemplary leadership" of the State Department historian, Stephen Randolph; the work of general editor Adam Howard; and "the recruitment of a cohort of skilled young historians." The HAC notes "greatly improved relations" between the State Department's Office of the Historian and key classifiers of documents like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. Production has turned around to such an extent that HAC predicts the elimination of the 30-­volume backlog the office has been facing since 2009.

The HAC anticipates publication of the "long-­delayed" volume Congo, 1960–1968 next year, along with two other volumes likely delayed because of problems declassifying information about US covert operations—Iran Retrospective and Chile, 1969–1973. It was the lack of references to covert operations in the FRUS volumes on Guatemala and Iran that prompted a call by the AHA, Organization of American Historians, and Society for Historians in American Foreign Relations for increased access by the HAC, and ultimately led to the Foreign Relations statute of 1991.

Despite the signs that encourage the HAC, it retains its "pessimism" about the HO meeting its goal of publishing a majority of volumes 30 years after the event "in the near future—­or possibly ever." This is due, the report claims, not to the HO, but to the High Level Panel that reviews the most sensitive declassification issues—­including covert actions. As it did in its last annual report, the HAC claims that the panel frequently delays volumes for over a year.

Read the entire HAC report.

—Allen Mikaelian is editor of Perspectives on History.