Friday, December 22, 2006

Millions of Classified Docs Will Become Publicly Available on Jan. 1

Hundreds of millions of secret government documents that were created 25 years ago are going to be declassified at midnight on December 31 as the result of a law passed in the Clinton administration. From now on, every Dec. 31 at 12 a.m., millions of 25-year-old government secrets will become available to historians and other researchers. And Pres. Bush has not attempted to kill the law, amazingly enough:

Many historians had expected President Bush to scrap the deadline. His administration has overseen the reclassification of many historical files and restricted access to presidential papers of past administrations, as well as contemporary records.

Practical considerations, including a growing backlog of records at the National Archives, mean that it could take months before the declassified papers are ready for researchers.

"Deadlines clarify the mind," said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the private National Security Archive at George Washington University, which obtains and publishes historical government documents.

Despite what he called a disappointing volume of exemptions, Mr. Blanton said automatic declassification had "given advocates of freedom of information a real lever."

Gearing up to review aging records to meet the deadline, agencies have declassified more than one billion pages, shedding light on the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the network of Soviet agents in the American government.

"Score one for the good guys," Defense Tech declares:

In a shockingly sane move, the Bush Administration -- widely considered to be the most secretive in recent history -- is going to let hundreds of millions of once-classified documents enter into the public sphere.
Earlier this year, the Administration was scrambling to make secret again already declassified papers, like the CIA's 1948 plan to drop leaflets behind the Iron Curtain. Good for them for having the sense to switch course.

Secrecy News, the official blog of the Federation of American Scientists, gives us a few caveats:

In practice, ... the impact of the policy may not be as dramatic as one might imagine, for several reasons.

First, many agencies have sought and received exemptions for one of nine categories of information (war plans, intelligence sources, WMD information, etc.) that need not be declassified. (Selected agency declassification plans may be found here.)

Second, records that involve the interests ("equities") of more than one agency are not subject to this month's deadline. Rather, they are to be declassified by December 31, 2009.

Third, declassification does not imply immediate disclosure. Some declassified records may still need to be reviewed for privacy data and other exempt information.

Finally, the processing of hundreds of millions or billions of declassified pages to make them publicly accessible is a logistical challenge that may exceed the capability of the National Archives, which has faced increasing budgetary pressures.

Unless Congress chooses to provide supplemental resources for the Archives, many declassified records will remain inaccessible.

That's okay; we will take our good news as we can get it.

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