In 2010, a backlog of almost 400 million pages of classified documents was piled up at the National Archives and Records Administration, waiting to go through a cumbersome review process so they could be released to the public. But NARA says around 90 percent of those documents have now undergone some level of review, and 42 million pages have now been released to the public.
The backlog is made up of documents that are at least 25 years old. Under a process first set up during the Clinton administration, the records were supposed to be automatically released as long as they didn’t contain information that could compromise modern-day national security. But ensuring that documents met that test turned out to be easier said than done.
David Mengel, the deputy director of the National Declassification Center told a NARA public forum Wednesday that an ineffective interagency process caused the records to pile up.
“There was a lack of standardization of classification guidance, so agencies protected different types of information,” he said. “There was a lack of coordination between the agencies in equity review. One agency wasn’t necessarily briefed on the types of information that belonged to another agency. So one agency would review, another agency would review, and it got into this cycle where nothing was getting through the quality assurance process. This would not work given the new mandate by the president.”
Executive order creates National Declassification Center
The new mandate came in the form of a 2009 executive order which created the National Declassification Center, provided more guidance on when documents could be withheld from declassification and gave agencies until 2013 to solve the quality assurance problem and clear the backlog.
Sheryl Shenberger, NDC’s director, said the redesigned process has been a success so far. 191 million pages have gone through the center’s redesigned quality assurance process: 52 percent of the backlog.
“Those are records that are off the review and re-review merry-go-round,” she said. “They don’t get seen again. They’re done.”
But quality assurance is only one type of examination that has to happen with certain documents that are up for declassification. The 2009 executive order specified that records should be withheld if they contain information that could expose human intelligence sources or nuclear secrets that could be employed by enemies today.
In the center’s most recent biennial report, Shenberger said many agencies have failed to adhere to legal requirements to screen their documents for nuclear secrets before sending them to NARA. That’s created an extra step in the review process and forced the NDC and agencies to dedicate extra personnel to review records page-by-page. Almost a third of the backlog is going to require that level of review, and because of that, NARA’s not sure agencies will meet the 2013 deadline.
Robert Warrington, the director of the CIA’s declassification branch, said it was immediately clear that the 2013 deadline would be a heavy lift for his agency and would involve managing risk. Millions of records that were supposed to have been referred to his agency to check for CIA equities never were. That process would now have to be handled by CIA staff detailed to the NDC.
“To achieve the executive order’s goals while contending with sizeable amounts of missed equity, CIA invested significant sums to increase its presence at the National Declassification Center, more than doubling the number of reviewers on its assessment team at the NDC,” he said. “We established the Records Equity Assessment Program (REAP) to organize and concentrate our efforts. REAP’s function is to review substantial quanities of backlogged records for missed CIA equity. REAP, moreover, is where the philosophy of managing risk by targeting resources comes together. Records of the U.S. Army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence, for example, are of much greater interest to us than the records of the U.S. Army’s quartermaster corps.”
Department of Energy screens for nuclear secrets
At the Department of Energy, which is responsible for screening documents for nuclear secrets, the experience was much the same, said Kenneth Stein, the agency’s director of document reviews.
“Prior to the President’s memo, we had a workforce of only seven reviewers. We ramped up to 35 reviewers,” he said. “The other thing is we looked at the way we were reviewing the collections, and we decided to take a very aggressive risk management approach, which means we targeted certain boxes within collections which we believed would have our equity in them. And by doing that, we’ve made a significant increase in the throughput in our system. With 35 individuals, we’ve already cleared 130 million pages of materials.”
Stein said Energy has also created an entirely electronic workflow process. Classified documents are managed in a SharePoint repository and moved from staffer to staffer without using paper. And the department is working on ways to have machines assist human reviewers with the document examination process itself.
“We’ve come to the realization that it’s extremely costly to do bracketing review manually. And we’re also concerned about the inundation that’s going to come in the future from the emails that are generated by the federal government,” he said. “I have a workstation in my office where we’re processing Department of State telegrams that were generated in 1978 and 1979. We set up a nice electronic filter with a word search loaded up with about 1,000 words, and from that we’ve been able to call out about 30,000 pages to be looked at manually by reviewers out of an original pool of 500,000. Soon, we could be able to start to have a hybrid between man and machine in review of documents, and eventually, we could take man out of the loop altogether and have entirely electronic processing of documents.”
Until then, the process will be labor-intensive and somewhat slow. Even with the improved business processes and added staff, NDC and agencies have put only 51 million pages through each layer of the classification review process since the center was stood up at the end of 2010. Of those pages, 82 percent have been released to the public rather than withheld.
But Shenberger said the process is getting much faster: the center processed 1 million pages a month in 2011. So far this year, it’s up to 5 million per month.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.