Allen Weinstein: Reports on declassification initiative

Historians in the News

n a meeting with representatives of the research community on 6 September 2006, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein reported on the progress being made in the effort to implement the "National Declassification Initiative (NDI)," a new set of policies, declassification practices, procedures, and organizational structures believed necessary to create a more reliable executive branch-wide declassification program for federal records. The Archivist said, "When we last met in April, I promised that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) would act swiftly and responsibly to begin to address the very serious challenges that we face in coordinating with other Federal agencies in the realm of declassification." The meeting demonstrated that Weinstein's promise is being kept.

The new NARA initiative is in response to an April 2006 audit report by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) entitled "Withdrawal of Records from Public Access at the National Archives and Records Administration for Classification Purposes." During the hour-long meeting that brought together representatives of the National Coalition for History, the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Federation of American Scientists, and several other groups, Weinstein explained the objectives, milestones, and progress to date for the initiative that he hopes will serve as the catalyst for declassification reform among federal agencies. The Archivist stated that all federal agencies are being encouraged to participate in and support both of these declassification initiatives.

Weinstein reported that the steering group met on 28 August at which time representatives of the 12 executive branch agencies with major declassification responsibilities discussed various strategies required to ensure the NDI's success. The Archivist stated that in subsequent meetings, the executive steering group will develop and implement detailed work plans designed to ensure that agency equities are referred and resolved to allow the maximum feasible declassification. In addition, the steering group will focus on ensuring that common referral standards are developed, redundancies are reduced, and that records are adequately reviewed for declassification so that only information that must be retained for national security purposes is withheld.

According to Weinstein, the program will establish a better means for managing referrals of classified equities between executive branch agencies. As envisioned, the new NDI program will reduce redundancies in declassification review, will promote accurate and consistent declassification decisions, will improve equity recognition across the declassification community, will develop centralized priorities and management controls around the priorities, and will make the declassification process more transparent to the public. In order to realize these goals, an interagency executive steering group has been established.

The Archivist also gave a status report on specific audit items. Weinstein stressed that since the ISOO audit report was issued, notwithstanding the ongoing Department of Energy document review pursuant to the Kyl-Lott Amendment [in which materials relating to atomic energy and weaponry are being "re-reviewed" consistent with a Congressional mandate], the practice of withdrawing documents from open shelves "has been stopped in its tracks." Weinstein stated that "today,withdrawals are extremely rare" and in order for an agency to do so it "must demonstrate a compelling case." He stated that only seven new documents had been withdrawn in the last four months and that "all of these withdrawals have been carefully noted in the opened files so that their removal is transparent to researchers and all have been handled in accordance with the audit protocol." One of the documents (from the Truman Library) has been declassified and is now back on the open shelf and agency decisions are still pending on the other items which originated from the Carter presidential library.

As a result of the findings of the ISOO audit, the Archivist stated that he requested that agencies do another re-review of the documents withdrawn during the first re-review. This effort is ongoing and the National Archives expects the vast majority of records withdrawn to be restored to public access over the next several months. For example, at the end of their work, the Air Force expects that 95 percent of their records under re-review will be released in full or redacted. By way of another example, CIA is re-reviewing 55 boxes of State Department records and expects to release in full 85 percent of their records; release in redacted form 10 percent; and withhold 5 perpcent. Additional collections will likewise be reviewed for return to the open shelves. "We regard this as encouraging news and plan to continue to hold our feet to the fire to ensure that there is no backsliding," added the Archivist. "
Read entire article at Bruce Craig, writing in the newsletter of the Coalition for History

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