A National Declassification Center, at its most basic, would provide a central location where agencies that deal extensively with classification could detail personnel and concentrate and coordinate their efforts. As the name makes clear, declassification would be the center’s central mission, rather than a poorly funded afterthought coming in behind the very real priorities of the agencies currently charged with doing classification in-house.
“I think that the National Declassification Center potentially has tremendous value, and it would be a major transformation in the way that declassification is done in this country,” says Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research library housed at George Washington University that regularly deals with classified documents. “Right now declassification is really mismanaged because it’s so dispersed among the agencies, and there’s a lot of redundancy, and there’s not a lot of best practices because its being done in so many places.”
But it is still far from clear what the center’s exact set-up and powers will be.
Martin Faga, who from 1989 to 1993 led the National Reconnaissance Office, then a top-secret agency responsible for the country’s spy satellites, is currently acting chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a federal advisory panel which issued a report in 2007 endorsing a National Declassification Center. He hopes that the Center will have some role in establishing rules of thumb for classification and declassification guides, the agency-level documents consulted by officials as they decide how a document should be classified at its creation, or a whether it’s safe to declassify a given document later on. Many guides have gone years without update, and a hard look at some of these could render new categories of documents ineligible for classification or eligible for release.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists hopes that the center will have an even stronger hand, and be given the power to formally review and approve or reject the guides. “If I could wish one thing into the executive order, that would be my wish,” says Aftergood.
Behind that hope is an argument that Aftergood recently made in an article appearing in the Yale Law & Policy Review: that successful classification policy adjustments promote accountability by taking decisions on classification out of the sole hands of the agency that originally made them.
Aftergood cites the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which was created by a Clinton-era executive order. ISCAP consists of representatives from the major classifying agencies, as the NDC would be. When a citizen feels that a document is unjustly classified, ISCAP is, short of judicial review, the final court of appeal. And while the agency hoping to keep the document has a chance to make their case, the panel of their colleagues can vote to overrule, in full or in part, the agency’s original decision. In fact, according to Aftergood’s data, ISCAP has done so in 64 percent of cases put before it.
It’s far from clear if the expected declassification center will have any power, like ISCAP does, to overrule a single agency’s classification decisions—and, if so, how that power will be exercised. Faga, of the Public Interest Declassification Board, favors placing the ability in the hands of the Center’s chair. An ISCAP-like voting process is also a possibility.
But without some authority to declassify documents over the objection of other agencies, Aftergood says, the NDC “is simply a way of streamlining the status quo, and making existing declassification procedures run more smoothly. So instead of waiting three or five years for an unsatisfactory response or denial, now, with a National Declassification Center you might be able to get your denial in a year and a half. Is that progress? I don’t think it is.”
While a National Declassification Center draws support from many in the access community, others question the assumptions upon which the idea itself is based.
“It’s a highly inefficient model to believe that every agency needs to have a say in the declassification of specific records, even if they have an equity in it,” says Bill Leonard, who headed the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007. “The irony of it is that I was a big support of a National Declassification Center. I was really pushing for it. But quite frankly, that was in the Bush administration. And I was hoping in an Obama administration we’d actually move past that mindset where we’d actually need a National Declassification Center.“