But this process is uncoordinated—there’s no permanent central location where the agencies’ declassification representatives can congregate to review documents together. Instead, documents are passed around between agencies, meaning that each agency can’t easily determine what has already been flagged or redacted by a colleague agency. While there’s some prioritization of the classification queue by relative age or topic, there’s no guarantee that any of these agencies—many of which have a poor reputation for understaffing and underfunding declassification efforts—will promptly examine a document once it’s been passed on to them for review.
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.