U.S. Board Issues Report on Declassifying Documents

6 December 2012

The U.S. Public Interest Declassification Board Dec. 6 issued 14 recommendations, including a proposal to move from three to two levels for classifying documents.

The report “centers on the need for new policies for classifying information, new processes for declassifying information, and the imperative for using and integrating technology into these processes,” according to the announcement.  The board discussed its recommendations on its blog Transforming Classification.

The board is an advisory committee established by Congress “to promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities.” President Obama  appointed Nancy Soderberg to head the board.

Among other things, the board recommended going from three categories for classification — top secret, secret or confidential – to two levels — top secret and “lower level.” The board said federal officers classifying information should focus on the “minimum level of protection needed.” (See article by New York Times.)

“The best way to deal with over-classification and promote information sharing is to manage risk by correctly assessing potential harm and classifying to meet the minimum level of protection needed, or often even keeping the information unclassified, the report said. “When considering classifying, every classifier should give serious consideration to declassification.”

The board also recommended faster automatic declassification and ways to strengthen the National Declassification Center.  Certain types of historical nuclear information should be reviewed for declassification and public access, the board said.

Creation of a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee was proposed to manage the implementation of reforms.

The text of the recommendations:


The President should appoint a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee to oversee implementation of the Board’s recommendations to modernize the current system of classification and declassification.


Classification should be simplified and rationalized by placing national security information in only two classification categories.


The threshold for classifying in the two-tiered system should be adjusted to align the level of protection with the level of harm anticipated in the event of unauthorized release.


The specific protections afforded intelligence sources and methods need to be precisely defined and distinguished.


Pre-decisional, tactical and operational information with short-lived sensitivity should be identified and segmented for automatic declassification without further review.


Agencies should recognize in policy and practice a “safe harbor” protection for classifiers who adhere to rigorous risk management practices and determine in good faith to classify information at a lower level or not at all.


The classification status of Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) information should be re-examined. A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of historical FRD information.


The President should bolster the authority and capacity of the National Declassification Center (NDC) with specific measures to advance a government-wide declassification strategy.

[8A], Executive Order 13526 should be amended to eliminate the additional three years now permitted for review of multiple agency equities in all archival records (including those stored outside the NDC).

[8B], The requirement of agencies to share declassification guidance with other classifying agencies and the NDC should be strengthened. Retention of agency declassification authority should be contingent upon sharing agency guidance.

[8C], The President should direct Agencies to consult the NDC prior to prioritizing their records for declassification and transfer to the National Archives.

[8D], The Interagency National Declassification Center Advisory Panel (NAP) should have representation from the public, including representation from the Government Openness advocacy community.

[8E], An interagency effort to develop new declassification review processes should be coordinated by the NDC and be based on a risk management approach.


Historically significant records should be identified and set aside as early as possible after their creation to ensure their preservation, long-term access, and availability to agency policymakers and historians. Each agency should strive to have an in-house history staff to assist in the prioritization of records.


Agencies should improve records management overall by supporting and advancing the government-wide information management practices found in the President’s Memorandum on Managing Government Records and its Directive.


The organization and integration of agency declassification programs must be improved across government.


Agencies should be encouraged to prepare case studies and national security histories, in classified and unclassified versions.


A series of pilot projects should be used to evaluate proposals for enhancing capabilities at the NDC, streamlining the declassification system and improving access to historically significant records, including historical nuclear information.


The President should direct the Security Classification Reform Steering Committee to encourage collaboration and to determine how to employ existing technologies and develop and pilot new methods to modernize classification and declassification.

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