OpenGov National Archives

Open Government Plan 2016 - 2018

National Archives and Records Administration

6.2 National Declassification Center

National Declassification Center


On December 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” which overhauled the way documents created by the federal government are classified and declassified and created the National Declassification Center (NDC), located within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Through declassification process streamlining, including the implementation of quality assurance and risk management strategies, the NDC has been strengthening open government while meeting significant milestone deadlines associated with classified federal records accessioned to NARA. During 2016 and beyond, the NDC will build on its success with declassification processing by expanding opportunities for prioritization within NARA’s still-classified holdings.

Success with Declassification Processing

Applying the lessons learned since the stand-up of the center in 2010, NDC’s primary goal is to process classified series for quality assurance within one year of their accessioning to NARA, thus eliminating any future equity identification backlog. In addition to that yearly goal, the NDC is prioritizing special release collections based on researcher requests, the significance of the historical topic, and the quality of the earlier review. NDC notifies the public on its web site and blog when new series of records have completed the declassification process and are available for research. The center also provides a listing of those series that have been through the declassification process, but await final indexing, an “indexing on demand” feature that allows researchers to have a voice as to which records go to the front of the line for access.

Success with Automated Referral Notification

During 2015, the NDC was able to expand its focus on making access happen by way of an expanded Interagency Referral Center (IRC). The IRC focus on document-level secondary referral review provides the opportunity for increased public access to previously reviewed and exempted records and reduces the number of records that must otherwise be requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) provisions. To support the fixed E.O.-directed timeline for referral completion, the NDC has implemented an equity referral notification and tracking system that automatically notifies appropriate representatives of other departments and agencies when classified records containing their classified equities require declassification review. In 2016 and beyond, this metrically based system will allow NDC to increase referral opportunities based on individual agency resources. The system helps NDC ensure that departments and agencies meet yearly referral review deadlines.

Establishing a Special Systematic Declassification Review Program

EO 13526, section 3.4, directs “each agency that has originated classified information under this order…to establish and conduct a program for systematic declassification review for records of permanent historical value exempted from automatic declassification,” in accordance with priorities established by the Center. Section 3.4 also directs the NDC under the authority of the Archivist of the United States to “conduct a systematic declassification review program for classified records accessioned into the National Archives.” During 2016, the NDC is developing a special systematic declassification review program for previously reviewed and exempted historical federal records that were accessioned to the National Archives and reviewed prior to the creation of the center in 2010. This pilot activity will be followed with a formalized process to make re-review of previously exempted records a priority for the NDC.

Expanding Collaboration with Other Federal Agencies

Since its inception, the NDC has promoted cross-government effective, transparent, and standard processes, training, and quality assurance measures for identifying embedded agency equities and facilitating their review and declassification. Building on this interagency effort for 2016 and beyond, NDC is working to facilitate onsite classified FOIA or other access collaboration particularly for older (and possibly overlooked) cases and requests. This activity should allow NDC to build on its 2015 success at reducing its classified FOIA backlog by 26%.

To support other agency declassification review experts, as well as the NDC staff, in recognizing each other's designation of classified information and to interpret it correctly during the review process, NDC has been leveraging expert reviewers’ agency-specific sensitive equity expertise with NARA’s own expertise in records management, overall national security information knowledge, and declassification processing to develop a series of courses aimed at establishing a baseline of review capability and quality assurance common across government. In 2011, 2013, and planned for 2017, the NDC has hosted and will host multi-day equity training conferences attended by declassification reviewers from across government. By 2017, NDC will finalize its web and instructor-led curriculum in order to educate cleared declassification reviewers, records managers, and access and security professionals on the historical background to declassification requirements and the executive orders, proper document handling, general agency responsibilities, public access to federal records, and equity identification.

National Archives' Leadership Role

The National Archives plays a key leadership role in ensuring that millions of classified records are declassified and made available for the people to inspect and for historians to mine and enrich the account of our nation's history much sooner than otherwise would have been possible. Through the efficient processes of the NDC, records that might have remained classified and withheld for far too long, are made available in a more timely fashion. The National Archives has long embraced providing the public as much access as possible to the records that document the rights of our citizens so they may exercise them fully. The NDC is integral to NARA in meeting this mission.