PIDB Grapples with Declassification of “Historically Significant” Records

Almost a year ago, Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) released its first report, Improving Declassification, to the President providing recommendations for improving the Federal government’s declassification system. Among the recommendations was one urging development of a system for prioritizing the government’s declassification efforts to ensure a greater focus on “historically significant” records, especially presidential records, with greater involvement of historians and historical advisory panels in setting these priorities.

On October 31, 2008, the PIDB held a public meeting to address the thorny issue of what constituted “historically significant” records and how to prioritize their declassification.

The PIDB heard from two panels. One was made up of federal historians and the other from non-federal historians with an interest in intelligence and military records.

Dr. Marc Susser, the Historian of the State Department led off the federal historians panel. Susser noted that the Foreign Relations Series of the United States volumes were generally completed chronologically. Susser felt using the concept of “historically significant” for prioritization would not be an efficient use of scarce resources since it would be difficult for stakeholders to agree on what met the criteria.

Dr. Michael Warner, historian in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that his advice would be to start at the top of the agency and work downward. In other words, look at the mission of the agency and then evaluate how the agency used its resources to carry out that mission. Once you assess how an agency utilized its resources, you should focus on those records. He stated that a year-by-year approach used by the State Department might not be practical and could be uneconomical at other agencies. Dr. Warner stated that you need very skilled people to perform declassification and there is a scarcity of records managers with that skill set. In addition, you would need historians at the PhD level to work collegially with the records managers to identify historically significant records.

Dr. Richard Davis of the U.S. Army Center of Military History said historians seeking material for books and articles actually pushed declassification. He urged historians be given better “roadmaps” to navigate the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. Dr. Davis stated that he thought the U.S. Army did not take its records-keeping responsibilities seriously and that there was no enforcement oversight built into the system. Davis cited recent cases from Iraq and Afghanistan where nearly half of the units returning had kept no records at all. He noted that units often just purge the hard drives of their computers. In addition, Davis said that those units that do keep records do not bother to categorize records making it difficult for archivists to sort through the material.

Dr. Nancy Tucker, historian at Georgetown University, led off the non-governmental historians panel. Dr. Tucker stated that prioritization of declassification is necessary, but it will be controversial in the historical community. One innate concern is who gets to decide what is important, so it is critical that historians be given a role in the prioritization process. She stated that one problem is that priorities can change over time. As a result there would have to be a regular review of both priority and non-priority topics. Dr. Tucker stated her own priority would be national security and intelligence.

Dr. Robert Wampler, a Research Fellow at the National Security Archive, was the next to testify. He gave the simple advise that prioritization should be “forward and top down.” He noted that declassification delays in processing military records and at the various Presidential Libraries were both problem areas and should be priorities. He thought it important that there be a legislative mandate on declassification.

Dr. Martin Sherwin, professor of history at George Mason University, noted that prioritization would always relate to a particular historians area of interest. He suggested turning to the “historical marketplace,” as one means of prioritization. Sherwin suggested that FOIA requests be given top priority and that the FOIA system should be better integrated into the declassification process. Dr. Sherwin suggested the creation of an “historical Google” electronic records system that would allow users to scan for keywords and phrases.

Dr. Ronald Spector of George Washington University was the final panelist. He said he supported the idea of a panel to aid in prioritization but that it needed to be broad based. It should include journalists, political scientists, scientists, and not only historians that specialize in national security and intelligence, but also social and other types of historians. Spector suggested that panelists not be totally reliant on records managers from the agencies and that they should be given security clearance. Spector stated that years of over-classification in the past have contributed to the current backlog and that this issue needed to be addressed going forward.

The Public Interest Declassification Board is an advisory committee established by Congress in order to promote the fullest possible public access to the documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities. Created in 2000 (Public Law 106-567), Congress appropriated funds for the Board’s operations in late 2005, allowing it to meet for the first time in February 2006.