When the order was revised in 2003, they were given another extension to 2006, but for documents that had multiple equities, they were given an extra three years. So if a twenty-five-year-old FBI document contained some CIA information, it was not automatically declassified. And so what the CIA would be concerned about today is unless the order is changed, that FBI document with CIA information will become automatically declassified even though the CIA never had a chance to review it.

CH: Maybe the answer to this is the National Declassification Center. Is there a mechanism could be put in place that could give a reasonable chance of the next deadline being met?

BL: I don’t think there is. I just put myself in the agency head’s shoes. When I was in the Pentagon, I was responsible for assembling a budget for declassification. I had to go through the hoops internally to the Defense Department, even to get it into a budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget. To me, the logical question is “What happens if we don’t meet the deadline?”

Well, the history is: “I guess they’ll give us a new deadline.”

If I were the agency head making decisions on scarce resources, I’d say “OK, well, thank you very much for your interest. Now go away.”

So just let the deadline happen, and deal with the consequences. It will not be the end of the republic, and in fact might make us more secure.

CH: So, since 2006, twenty-five-year-old classified records that contain information from only one agency are supposed to have been automatically declassified at year’s end. Has that been happening?

BL: Well, it’s the old question: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? You can say the same about a declassified document: If a document is automatically declassified, but nobody sees it, is it really declassified? That document is still sitting in a box in the National Archives waiting to be processed so it can become publicly available. You have two dynamics here: you have the classification challenge, plus you have the tremendous backlog at NARA.

CH: So while it may be declassified as a legal matter, as a matter of public access it’s just as lost as it was before.

BL: It still does achieve something, though. It’s not on the open shelf, so to speak; but to reclassify this document and stop it from eventually being released, an agency is going to have to take specific action. But there’s a high standard, a more onerous process, because it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. So it kind of shifts the burden.

CH: So if the three-year deadline is about multiple equities, is the idea here that if they really get the National Declassification Center off the ground, there’ll be a better mechanism before the next deadline to deal with these multiple equity documents?

BL: I assume that’s the idea. That’s what I hear. I, for one, just simply wouldn’t buy that. Because it gets to the point when you blow one deadline after another, in essence you’re saying deadlines are truly meaningless.

I hearken back to when the order was revised in 2003. I did meet with Dr. Rice after it was signed. She was the National Security Advisor at the time, and was very interested in the order because her office was responsible; but also, based on her academic background, she had a strong appreciation for why the country needed a robust declassification program. And she specifically told me—directed me, as a matter of a fact—to make sure that all the agencies knew there would be no more extensions of the deadline. And that message was communicated clearly and deliberately. And that was coming out of the Bush administration!

CH: And yet here we are.

BL: Here we are. And that’s why I take the position that deadlines are deadlines. And if this administration were to let the deadline take place, it’s not like all of the sudden sensitive deadlines would be flying out all over the place at the National Archive, because the stuff is sitting in boxes and kept in vaults. They still have to be processed to make them publicly available.

CH: But if a document is sitting in NARA, declassified, isn’t there a way to get it out by a request?

BL: Sure. If you know a record is there and you make an access demand through the Freedom of Information Act or a Mandatory Declassification Review, that’s a way to speed up the process. But we also understand how laborious the FOIA or MDR is.

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