U.S. to Declassify Secrets at Age 25WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 — It will be a Cinderella moment for the band of researchers who study the hidden history of American government.
By SCOTT SHANE
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
The New York Times
At midnight on Dec. 31, hundreds of millions of pages of secret documents will be instantly declassified, including many F.B.I. cold war files on investigations of people suspected of being Communist sympathizers. After years of extensions sought by federal agencies behaving like college students facing a term paper, the end of 2006 means the government’s first automatic declassification of records.
Secret documents 25 years old or older will lose their classified status without so much as the stroke of a pen, unless agencies have sought exemptions on the ground that the material remains secret.
Historians say the deadline, created in the Clinton administration but enforced, to the surprise of some scholars, by the secrecy-prone Bush administration, has had huge effects on public access, despite the large numbers of intelligence documents that have been exempted.
And every year from now on, millions of additional documents will be automatically declassified as they reach the 25-year limit, reversing the traditional practice of releasing just what scholars request.
Many historians had expected President Bush to scrap the deadline. His administration has overseen the reclassification of many historical files and restricted access to presidential papers of past administrations, as well as contemporary records.
Practical considerations, including a growing backlog of records at the National Archives, mean that it could take months before the declassified papers are ready for researchers.
“Deadlines clarify the mind,” said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the private National Security Archive at George Washington University, which obtains and publishes historical government documents.
Despite what he called a disappointing volume of exemptions, Mr. Blanton said automatic declassification had “given advocates of freedom of information a real lever.”
Gearing up to review aging records to meet the deadline, agencies have declassified more than one billion pages, shedding light on the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the network of Soviet agents in the American government.
Several hundred million pages will be declassified at midnight on Dec. 31, including 270 million pages at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has lagged most agencies in reviews.
J. William Leonard, who oversees declassification as head of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives, said the threat that secret files might be made public without a security review had sent a useful chill through the bureaucracy.
“Unfortunately, you sometimes need a two-by-four to get agencies to pay attention,” Mr. Leonard said. “Automatic declassification was essentially that two-by-four.”
What surprises await in the documents is impossible to predict.
“It is going to take a generation for scholars to go through the material declassified under this process,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs a project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.
“It represents the classified history of a momentous period, the cold war,” Mr. Aftergood said. “Almost every current headline has an echo in the declassified past, whether it’s coping with nuclear weapons, understanding the Middle East or dictatorship and democracy in Latin America.”
Anna K. Nelson, a historian at American University, said she hoped that the files would shed light on the Central Intelligence Agency role in Iran and deepen the documentation of the Jimmy Carter years, in particular the Camp David accords.
“Americans need to know this history, and the history is in those documents,” Ms. Nelson said.
She said the National Archives staff was buried in a 400-million-page backlog that awaits processing and is not publicly available.
Also, a budget shortfall has cut back on evening and weekend access to the major research center of the archives, in College Park, Md.
“They can declassify the records, but the archives don’t have the staff to handle them,” Ms. Nelson said.
The first deadline was imposed in an executive order that President Bill Clinton signed in 1995, when officials realized that taxpayers were paying billions of dollars to protect a mountain of cold war documents.
The order gave agencies five years to declassify documents or show the need for continued secrecy.
When agencies protested that they could not meet the 2000 deadline, it was extended to 2003. Mr. Bush then granted another three-year extension, but put out the word that it was the last one, despite the new emphasis on security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a new war in Iraq.
“The Bush administration could have said, ‘This is a Clinton thing,’ and abandoned it,” Mr. Aftergood, said. “To their credit, they did not.”
As an enforceable deadline loomed, the intelligence agencies that produce most secret material add workers to plow through files from World War II.
The C.I.A. has reviewed more than 100 million pages, released 30 million pages and created a database of documents, Crest, that is accessible from terminals at the National Archives. Although most of the documents are exempt, they can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
The National Security Agency, the eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, has released 35 million pages, including an extensive collection on the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War. The agency plans a major release early next year on the Israeli attack on the Liberty, an American eavesdropping ship, in 1967.
The F.B.I., by contrast, negotiated an exemption from the 1995 executive order and concluded last year that the 2003 executive order ended its special status. It has rushed to review material, seeking exemption for 50 million pages on intelligence, counterintelligence and terrorism, but leaving 270 million pages to be automatically declassified now.
Among those files, said David M. Hardy, the bureau declassification chief, are those on investigations of Americans with suspected ties to the Communist Party. Reviewers will keep working on the exempt material to see what can be released, but it is a slow process, Mr. Hardy said.
“The numbers of documents are staggering,” Mr. Hardy said.
The bureau is studying digitizing documents and using computers to search for classified material. Some experts say mass declassification is not the smartest approach. L. Britt Snider, a former intelligence official who heads the Public Interest Declassification Board, which advises the White House, said most government records, even top-secret ones, were pretty boring.
“Rather than take this blunderbuss approach,” Mr. Snider said, “I’d like to see the agencies concentrate first on what’s interesting and what’s important.”