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Sunday, December 4, 2011 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Effort to declassify old U.S. secrets a huge job

By Peter Finn
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Air Force's "Reports on Soviet Air Power and Strategic Nuclear Weapons," about 2,500 pages in all, were produced between 1952 and 1955, but not until earlier this year were 2,210 pages made public. The release is part of a large-scale effort at the National Archives to clear a backlog of nearly 400 million pages that should have been declassified a long time ago.

"All of these pages had been piling up here, literally," said Sheryl Shenberger, a former CIA official who is the head of the National Declassification Center (NDC) at the National Archives.

The impetus to clear the backlog was a 2009 executive order issued by President Obama that created the center. At the time, David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said the federal government had reached "a watershed moment" in records declassification.

"The current backlog is so huge that Americans are being denied the ability to hold government officials accountable for their actions," Ferriero said. "By streamlining the declassification process, the NDC will usher in a new day in the world of access."

All of the backlogged documents date back 25 years or more, and most are Cold War-era files from the departments of Defense, State and Justice, among other agencies. The CIA manages the declassification of its own files.

To cut through the mountain of paper, the NDC has introduced a risk-management approach to the documents. Instead of attempting to look at every document, all the relevant agencies agreed to look at a small sample of a particular series. If the reviewers, drawn from all agencies, decide by looking at the sample that the earlier agency review was a good one, then the remainder of the documents that the agency had cleared is made public.

The declassification effort is earning some plaudits from usually skeptical observers.

"They are bringing a new degree of order and efficiency to what has been a disorderly process," said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "The various agencies understand the imperative from above and they are motivated."

Aftergood said, however, that the White House initiative affects only documents that go back 25 years or more, and "does not deal with contemporary records, which are also in need of declassification review."

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