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United States

Streamline the Declassification Process (US0067)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: United States Action Plan 2015-2017

Action Plan Cycle: 2015

Status: Inactive

Institutions

Lead Institution: The Administration

Support Institution(s): NA

Policy Areas

Capacity Building

IRM Review

IRM Report: United States End-of-Term IRM Report 2015-2017, United States Mid-Term Report 2015-2017

Starred: No

Early Results: Marginal

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Access to Information Technology

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion:

Description

While national security interests require that certain information be protected as classified, democratic principles require government to be transparent, wherever possible, about its activities. Declassification is a time-consuming and costly process that often involves manual review of records. In order to identify processes and tools to help automate and streamline declassification, the Administration will:

IRM Midterm Status Summary

IRM End of Term Status Summary

Commitment 15. Streamline the Declassification Process

Commitment Text:

Streamline the Declassification Process

While national security interests require that certain information be protected as classified, democratic principles require government to be transparent, wherever possible, about its activities. Declassification is a time-consuming and costly process that often involves manual review of records. In order to identify processes and tools to help automate and streamline declassification, the Administration will:

  • Develop a Plan to Implement Technological Tools to Help Automate Declassification Review. The interagency Classification Reform Committee will develop a plan to expand the use of technological tools that were piloted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Archives to help automate declassification review.
  • Pilot the Use of a Topic-Based Interagency Declassification Guide. When reviewing documents for declassification, multiple agencies may have had a stake in the creation and classification of those documents, and ordinarily each must review them prior to declassification. The Classification Reform Committee will work with agencies to pilot a declassification guide based on a topic or event in order to enable trained interagency staff to review this information where it resides, rather than referring the classified information to multiple agencies, avoiding the sometimes lengthy interagency review process.
  • Establish a Special Systematic Declassification Review Program. The National Declassification Center at the National Archives will implement a special systematic declassification review program for previously reviewed and exempted historical Federal records that were accessioned to the National Archives and reviewed prior to the creation of the National Declassification Center in 2010.
  • Declassify Historical Intelligence Records in the Public Interest. The Central Intelligence Agency will lead an interagency project to declassify no-longer-sensitive Presidential Daily Briefs from the Nixon and Ford administrations. Working with Intelligence Community agencies and the Classification Reform Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency will manage a line-by-line review of these important historical documents and post them online in machine-readable formats.

Responsible institutions: Central Intelligence Agency and National Archives and Records Administration

Supporting institutions: Classification Reform Committee, Federal agencies with classification authority, and civil society stakeholders

Start Date: Not Specified End Date: Not Specified

Commitment Aim

This commitment built on the previous action plan’s commitment to reduce overclassification and better handle large volumes of classified digital material. It aimed to automate and streamline the declassification process by:

Developing a plan to expand the use of technological tools that could help automate the declassification review process;

Piloting a topic- and event-based declassification guide to make the interagency declassification review process more efficient;

Implementing a systematic declassification review program for previously reviewed and exempted historical federal records whose review took place prior to the creation of the National Declassification Center; and

Reviewing presidential daily briefs from the Nixon and Ford administrations for potential declassification and subsequent online dissemination in a machine-readable format.

Status

Midterm: Limited

By the midterm, the government had made limited progress on this commitment:

The government’s midterm self-assessment report noted that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was developing, testing, and refining technological tools to further the declassification process. However, the IRM researcher did not independently observe any progress on Milestone 15.1 at the midterm.[1]

The report also noted[2] that the Classification Reform Committee requested that agencies prepare a list of topics for inclusion in the interagency declassification guide. The anticipated due date for this was late 2016. Thus, Milestone 15.2 had limited completion.

Per the report,[3] the National Archives’ National Declassification Center (NDC) created an inventory of government records accessioned prior to 2010. The NDC began piloting the declassification review process for these materials, with 66,000 pages declassified by midterm. While newly declassified archives were announced on the NDC blog,[4] it was unclear which of these documents were declassified following the new review process. As a result, Milestone 15.3 had limited completion at the midterm.

The CIA released the daily presidential briefs from the Nixon and Ford administrations shortly after the close of the midterm reporting period. By the midterm, Milestone 15.4, therefore, had limited completion.

End of term: Limited

At the end of term, overall progress on this commitment remains limited:

Using publicly available information, the IRM researcher was unable to verify whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made any progress on Milestone 15.1. The milestone, therefore, remains “not started”.

The IRM researcher was unable to verify whether agencies had prepared lists of topics for inclusion in the interagency declassification guide or whether the guide itself had been produced. Completion for Milestone 15.2, therefore, remains limited.

The IRM researcher did not observe any further progress on Milestone 15.3 by the close of the end-of-term reporting period. Importantly, a roughly identical commitment appears in the National Archives and Records Administration’s Open Government Plan: 2016-2018.[5] Specifically, the plan notes that “the NDC is developing a special systematic declassification review program for previously reviewed and exempted historical federal records that were accessioned to the National Archives and reviewed prior to the creation of the Center in 2010. This pilot activity will be followed with a formalized process to make re-review of previously exempted records a priority for the NDC.”[6] In light of this statement, the IRM researcher assesses that no additional progress has been made on Milestone 15.3 since midterm. Completion, therefore, remains limited.

On 24 August 2016, the CIA published a set of declassified “President’s Daily Briefs” from the Nixon and Ford administrations,[7] resulting in the completion of Milestone 15.4. The declassified materials include 2,500 documents comprising 28,000 pages. The CIA released them in conjunction with a CIA symposium, 'The President's Daily Brief: Delivering Intelligence to Nixon and Ford.' This symposium was held at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.[8] Speaking to the importance of these materials, the CIA noted that the briefs “contain the highest level of intelligence on the president’s key national security issues and concerns . . . [and] were the primary vehicle for summarizing the day-to-day sensitive intelligence and analysis, as well as late-breaking reports, for the White House.”[9] The briefs cover a variety historically important events. These include the Vietnam War, the 1973–1974 embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the Arab-Israeli War of 1973.[10]

Did It Open Government?

Access to Information: Marginal

This commitment marginally opened government regarding access to information. Given the limited progress on the other milestones, progress on this front stems solely from the Central Intelligence Agency’s release of the declassified daily briefs (Milestone 15.4).

The release of the daily briefs expands the public’s access to information from the Nixon and Ford administrations. The briefs provide details on important historical moments, such as President Nixon’s trip to China, the end of the Vietnam War, and the rise of Mu’ammar Gaddhafi in Libya. The release also received significant attention from the media, which highlighted some of the most noteworthy details of the briefs.[11]

Still, the release of the Nixon and Ford briefs alone cannot be considered a major improvement because they build upon the 2015 release of the briefs from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The overall process of releasing presidential briefs has the potential to significantly further access to information among the public. However, each particular release constitutes an incremental step forward on this path.

Carried Forward?

At the time of writing, the US government had not published its fourth national action plan, so it is unclear if this commitment is carried forward. Open government advocates expressed substantial interest in this commitment. Many submitted proposals for streamlining the declassification process during the development of the action plan.[12] The milestones that remain incomplete should be addressed going forward in light of this demand.

Regarding this commitment and Milestone 15.1, Steven Aftergood, project director at the Federation of American Scientists, noted that “a particular problem is that little or no new investment has been made in developing the technological aids to declassification that will undoubtedly be required to process the ever-accumulating mass of historically valuable classified records. Traditional declassification practices are simply inadequate to the task.”[13] The IRM researcher observed no progress under this milestone during the evaluation period. However, Aftergood’s comments speak to the importance of devoting renewed attention to this particular milestone, should the government ultimately move forward with this commitment.


[1] United States of America, Midterm Self-Assessment Report for the Open Government Partnership: Third Open Government National Action Plan, 2015-2017, September 2016, 17, https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2001/01/USA_NAP3_self-assessment-report_20160916.pdf, consulted 2 October 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] National Declassification Center Blog, National Archives and Records Administration, https://declassification.blogs.archives.gov/.

[5] National Archives and Records Administration, Open Government Plan 2016-2018. https://usnationalarchives.github.io/opengovplan/, consulted 14 September 2017. See specifically Commitment 39 in Appendix B of the plan.

[6] National Archives and Records Administration, Open Government Plan 2016-2018: Section 6.2, https://usnationalarchives.github.io/opengovplan/declassification/, consulted 14 September 2017.

[7] “President’s Daily Brief,” Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/presidents-daily-brief, consulted 14 September 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “CIA Releases Roughly 2,500 Declassified President’s Daily Briefs,” Central Intelligence Agency, 24 August 2016, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/press-releases-statements/2016-press-releases-statements/cia-releases-roughly-2-500-declassified-president2019s-daily-briefs.html, consulted 28 September 2017.

[11] Denise Salazar, “CIA at Nixon Library Releases Declassified Briefings Given to President in the ’70s,” The Orange County Register, 26 August 2016, http://bit.ly/2sBR0Jc; David S. Cloud, “CIA Releases Thousands of Previously Classified Briefings to Presidents Nixon and Ford,” Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2016, http://lat.ms/2bnRoPn; and Ryan Browne, “CIA Declassifies Thousands of Nixon, Ford Daily Intel Briefings,” CNN, 26 August 2016, http://cnn.it/2GdzHjt.

[12] OpenTheGovernment.org, Civil Society Model Commitments for the Third US National Action Plan, September 2015, http://bit.ly/2oBni4D, consulted 14 September 2017.

[13] Written comments provided to the IRM researcher, 28 October 2017.


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