Recap from the National Declassification Center's Public Forum

Today’s post comes from NDC Director Sheryl Shenberger and provides a summary of the NDC forum held on April 10, 2015.

Last Friday, April 10, Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, kicked off another successful NDC Public Forum, NDC Prioritization: What Secrets Do People Want to See? NDC had selected the subject of “prioritization” as it could relate to declassification, because the sheer number of records requiring declassification processing suggests to us that new approaches must be considered if we are to provide the history of the US government in a timely manner. NDC received a number of useful and practical suggestions during the two hours; I have captured a few high points below.

To set a baseline, I provided the NDC’s current five prioritized processes: 1) processing classified series for quality assurance within one year of their accessioning to the National Archives. Working with agencies in the future on a quality assurance approach to series not yet physically located at College Park. 2) Ramped up review of previously reviewed and exempted records in conjunction with an automated equity referral notification and tracking system. 3) Processing those records withdrawn before NARA established a computerized data capture system in 2002. 4) “Indexing on demand” for researchers to request series to go to the head of the final data entry and document segregation queue. 5) Special themed declassification projects when practical.

Senior Archivist David Langbart provided authoritative insight into both the practical applicability of and philosophical concerns with topic-based prioritization, and Supervisory Archivist Martha Murphy offered the audience a view into the method being used to complete the last of the JFK records.

Our VIP Panel then offered their unique views and suggestions on prioritization, its value and where it might be best applied. David Robarge from CIA gave his historian’s take on where CIA might go: focus on post–Cold War National Intelligence Estimates, President’s Daily Briefs (and their predecessor documents), the organization of the agency, and the declassification of certain covert action activities. Stephen Randolph from the Department of State acknowledged the multiple demands on declassification reviewers and the problems associated with thematic review. He offered the concept of an advisory committee that could prioritize NDC records, in the way of State Department’s successful Historical Advisory Committee. OpenTheGovernment.org’s Katherine Hawkins noted the logistics concerns and document-level pass/fail method of a high-volume operation like the NDC, lamented the release rate, and suggested that a clear definition for what constitutes “sources and methods” could expand the declassification of some series. Bill Burr and Nate Jones from the National Security Archive offered a number of specific record series NDC might focus on, such as presidential records, Secretary of Defense and of State files, and Director-level series from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the Intelligence Community. Like Katherine, they lamented the release rate, and Bill called out Defense for being overly restrictive. Nate noted that document-level review is “not doing the job,” and advocated for a redaction review that might lead to fewer re-reviews by doing this careful declassification review to start with. Representing the view of the Public Interest Declassification Board and its recent publication, “Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification,” Bill Leary agreed with fellow panel members that the current system of declassification is unsustainable especially in the light of electronic records. He suggested a focus on the more important records rather than the oldest and noted that the application of document-level pass/fail creates a bigger backlog down the road. He placed presidential records and previously exempted series at the head of a prioritization queue, and suggested the NDC identify record series that don’t warrant a review unless requested, identify those that could be declassified automatically, and then focus resources on the most requested records.

Questions and comments from the forum audience included advocacy for expedited review of the final JFK records, the prioritization of top-level records for redaction processing, and looking to NARA researcher requests for clues to prioritization.

The forum was recorded and is available for viewing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABsaEa9v4ik

Future blog posts will inform you on NDC progress with forum suggestions, comments, and concerns.

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