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.
We are in a never ending do loop here. Because there is so much information that should be declassified but hasn’t been, and is still in boxes in the vaults, that increases the number of FOIA requests and MDR requests. That clogs up that system, which detracts from resources that could be applied to processing those records that could be on the public shelf. If you apply the resources where the greater good is accomplished, where more records are gotten out sooner, you could actually reduce the number of FOIA and MDR requests.
CH: But in a MDR or FOIA process, would an agency responsible for that document get another look at it?
BL: If the record is still classified, either because it’s been exempted or the twenty-five or twenty-eight years haven’t passed, then yes, the agency has to get an ability to review it. If the powers that be were to take my suggestion and allow this information to be automatically declassified, technically, I’m surmising here, NARA would not be obligated to allow a review.
CH: Because it’s already declassified.
BL: But there’s no reason an accommodation couldn’t be made. So if you had a National Declassification Center on site at NARA with agency representatives, that should be very easy to accommodate. If this information is allowed to be automatically declassified, I think it’s fair to put the onus on the agencies to tell NARA: “We don’t need to see every record, but this is the stuff we’re still concerned about and if you get a request for this kind of information, then yes, share it with me.”
CH: So if something goes into NARA, and it’s marked declassified because of this upcoming deadline, and somebody makes a request, there’s no formal opportunity for an agency with equity in that document to make a case that that record never should have been out there.
BL: Right. And that does happen from time to time. But the other side of the ledger is that this is information that, if made publicly available, can serve to inform military and political officials within the government who are responsible for making decisions on war and peace. And I think informed decisions in the national security arena is of much more vital interest to the American people today, and has a much more vital impact on their security and well being than some obscure thirty-year-old document.