Thursday, December 21, 2006

Millions of Pages of Federal Documents to be Declassified at the end of the Year

The New York Times is reporting that a large quantity of classified federal records are soon to be declassified:

At midnight on Dec. 31, hundreds of millions of pages of secret documents will be instantly declassified, including many F.B.I. cold war files on investigations of people suspected of being Communist sympathizers. After years of extensions sought by federal agencies behaving like college students facing a term paper, the end of 2006 means the government’s first automatic declassification of records.

Secret documents 25 years old or older will lose their classified status without so much as the stroke of a pen, unless agencies have sought exemptions on the ground that the material remains secret.

Historians say the deadline, created in the Clinton administration but enforced, to the surprise of some scholars, by the secrecy-prone Bush administration, has had
huge effects on public access, despite the large numbers of intelligence documents that have been exempted.

And every year from now on, millions of additional documents will be automatically declassified as they reach the 25-year limit, reversing the traditional practice of releasing just what scholars request. ...

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.

Several hundred million pages will be declassified at midnight on Dec. 31, including 270 million pages at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has lagged most agencies in reviews.

The story continues here.

Greater access to previously classified documents for which there is no continuing secrecy need is important -- and not just for historians who work on national security issues. Many records across government agencies bear classification stamps, and you can find access to records barred, not just for research the war in Vietnam or antisubversive investigations during the Cold War, but also civil rights matters.

And as history has become first international, and now transnational (see new issue of American Historical Review, with much on transnational history) foreign affairs records become a valuable source to track international reactions to domestic developments of various kinds. Diplomatic files often bear classification stamps. So greater access is something that a broad range of legal historians have a stake in.

Research note: I have often argued that there is much in U.S. diplomatic files at the National Archives for legal historians across fields, since these records can place "domestic" topics in a global context. This research is not easy for the uninitiated, but I wrote a research guide, available here. It focuses on research on African constitutional development, but the basic information about breaking the code to diplomatic history research at the U.S. National Archives can help researchers in other fields.