SHAFR Statement on What Congress Can Do to Address the Mismanagement of Public Records

SHAFR Statement on What Congress Can Do to Address the Mismanagement of Public Records

Safeguarding classified material is a national challenge that must be confronted by Congress and the Executive branch, both to protect national security and ensure democratic accountability. Long before the current controversy, it was clear that neither the Presidential Records Act nor the Federal Records Act were preventing the concealment, removal, and mutilation of public records.

We urge Congress to consider new legislation that can address these shortcomings. Historians of U.S. foreign relations stand ready to contribute to this effort. We can speak directly to the real and growing risks of inaction, and we can also contribute our own knowledge about how to improve on past efforts to address these problems. 

Major legislative initiatives will raise constitutional questions that require careful study. But there are already things Congress can do that will make a measurable difference in mitigating the obvious crisis of overclassification. Overclassification is a critical reason why the mismanagement of public records has become a national security concern: officials have for too long failed to identify and prioritize truly dangerous information, instead allowing decades-old documents to pile up in an antiquated declassification system.

The last time the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) attempted an estimate, in 2017, it reported that officials classified information almost fifty million times a year, and protecting all these secrets cost $18.4 billion. Barely half of one percent, or $103 million, went to declassification. Since then, it has been unable even to venture a guess as to the scope and cost of state secrecy, in part because ISOO itself is woefully underfunded.  

Government agencies that classify material have agreed that declassification of older records could make the challenge more manageable and, for the most part, also agree on declassification standards. There is also a broad consensus that we need to develop technology to assist and accelerate declassification review (see, e.g., this 2020 report by the Public Interest Declassification Board). But it is not clear whether any department or agency will devote the necessary resources.  20A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization

What is needed urgently is adequate funding and the designation of a government agency that can lead the way. Not only will an intensified effort to declassify documents bolster transparency and accountability, linchpins of a thriving democracy. An effective declassification process is also fundamental to resolving the Freedom of Information Act quagmire.

  1.  We therefore recommend earmarking additional funds to:
    1. Invest in declassification technology
    2. Strengthen the National Declassification Center with additional staff
    3. Preserve and enhance FOIAonline so it can handle classified records
  2. We also believe it is necessary to formally task an existing government agency and provide the resources to oversee and direct the interagency declassification effort.
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