You’ve heard of the climate deadline looming in Copenhagen, and the health care deadline looming on Capitol Hill. But this season, there’s another deadline coming up that—shhh—hasn’t gotten much attention.

If no changes or amendments are made to the Bush administration’s standing classification policy, at the stroke of midnight on December 31, countless documents that are twenty-eight years old or older will be automatically declassified—whether or not the agencies who contributed information to the records have had a chance to give them the all-clear for release.

Several press accounts, including one from the Boston Globe in November, suggest that one way or another Obama will grant government’s secret makers a reprieve at the expense of archivists, historians, journalists, and citizens eager to get a look at the long-awaited documents.

If the deadline is pushed back—this would be the third time—one person who’ll be disappointed is Bill Leonard, who from 2002 to 2007 served as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, a National Archives and Records Administration division that monitors the nation’s security classification system. Before Leonard took charge at ISOO, he was a deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for security and information operations. (Here’s a past CJR video interview with Leonard.)

“If it happens, I can’t think of a clearer sign that we’re not serious about any of these deadlines,” he says.

It remains to be seen if Obama will simply give an extension before the end of the year, or release an executive order that more broadly reforms the national security classification system. But eventually the administration is expected to establish a National Declassification Center, which could coordinate release and multi-agency review of precisely the sort of documents under deadline: records that contain information—or in classification lingo, “equity”—from more than one agency.

CJR spoke with Leonard about the history of the deadlines, the implications of Obama’s decision, and the time Condoleeza Rice insisted that the December 31, 2009 deadline would be the last.


Clint Hendler: What did the 1995 Clinton executive order set up in terms of the so-called mandatory declassification deadline that’s got us staring at this date again?

Bill Leonard: The original Clinton executive order set up an original deadline of 2000. I think it can be clearly stated that the original goal was more aspirational than realistic. It was arbitrary. Nobody knew how much material it covered. Nobody knew what it would take to declassify so much information.

CH: And what sort of records were supposed to be declassified?

BL: It would have been any twenty-five-year-old or older historical records that had not been appropriately exempted from automatic declassification.

CH: And nobody took meeting that deadline seriously?

BL: Exactly. I don’t think it was envisioned at the time that there would be page-by-page reviews of each classified document. Bulk declassification was a tool that agencies could have used.

But even if you were to do bulk declassification, you’d have to survey the material. Nobody really had substantive experience that could be drawn upon to make any accurate workload projections and come up with plans to achieve the goal. And nobody said “OK, what do we have to accomplish over the next five years, what kind of production do we need to have to achieve that?” Instead it was “Let me see how much of a capability I can ramp up, and then let’s see how close to the goal we can get.”

For all practical purposes, it takes at least two years for an agency to get something into a budget. You have to go through a planning process internally, and then it has to go thorough the Office of Management and Budget, and then it has to go up to the Hill. So for those agencies starting from scratch, it would have taken them two years to start up realistic declassification programs.

So when it got to the point when the deadline was looming, it was pretty obvious that no one was in a position to accomplish the original goal. So that’s when the first deadline was extended. There was an amendment to the executive order, which brought it to 2003.

CH: So agencies got a little bit of a reprieve. What did they spend those extra three years doing?

BL: Well, I guess they continued to churn out as much as they could. But in between, 9/11 happened, which obviously distracted a good part of the government, and many of the agencies, and of course redirected a lot of resources. So once again, when the next deadline was approaching—the 2003 deadline—it was readily apparent that it would not be met again.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.