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.
After so many years in the declassification arena I can’t think of a single instance where there has been identifiable real harm to the national security as the result of a document being made available. A much stronger case can be made that national security is damaged more by artificially withholding this information than by making it available.
There was information that certainly could have been bulk declassified in 1995—here we are fifteen years later, and it’s certainly no more sensitive. If anything, there should be even more information that can be bulk declassified. When Clinton issued his order in 1995, not only did he bulk-declassify all records up to World War II, but he bulk-declassified certain records up to the Vietnam era. And that was twenty-five years prior. So if you work back twenty-five years from now, you’re talking records from 1985 and before.
CH: And there’s an incredible amount of history through the mid-1980s that I bet people would be itching to get at.
BL: Oh my god! The early ’80s would encompass our involvement in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion. How valuable could some of that information have been to add to the development of an appropriate strategy there if it had been available and researchers had been available to go through it and draw lessons learned and things along those lines?
One of the things that I often point out is that agencies don’t often have the luxury of knowing what they know—they’re too busy taking care of day-to-day activities. So the research and academic community out there is a free asset for not only the American people but for our government.
This has a direct impact on America’s well-being today, and the fact that we still approach this topic of declassification with such a retrograde mindset—I find it to be appalling and actually damaging to national security.