FY2020 NDAA Requirements Promote Improvements in Declassification Review

Requirements in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) support improvements in declassification processes and address the need to invest in information technology to support declassification. Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) Director Mark Bradley earlier emphasized these needs in ISOO’s 2018 Annual Report to the President.

Specifically, the FY 2020 NDAA:

  • requires that the Department of Defense (DOD) report to the Armed Services Committees of the House and the Senate “on reducing the backlog in legally required historical declassification obligations of the Department of Defense” by April 18, 2020 (120 days after enactment of the NDAA);
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to provide in the report an assessment of records released for each of the past three years under 25- and 50-year automatic declassification review programs, together with an estimate of how many records DOD will review and declassify for each of the next three years;
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to provide a separate report on the “progress and objectives” of DOD in reviewing and declassifying records for publication in the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, and for public access at the National Archives and Records Administration and the presidential libraries; and
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to provide a report on DOD’s plan to adopt and implement the use of technology to support declassification.

By including these provisions in the NDAA, the Congress recognized the importance of modernizing the classified national security information system to better support both 21st century national security needs and government transparency.  Declassification and access to government records is an important part of our democracy and it also aids our national security.

If DOD develops a comprehensive plan and implements it, it has the potential to reduce the need for citizens to file Freedom of Information Act requests and Mandatory Declassification Review requests for classified historical records.  It also has the potential to greatly reduce the increasing backlogs of MDR appeals received by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

The separate report required on improving DOD efforts to better support State Department historians as they seek line-by-line declassification of records for publication in FRUS is also an important action.  These records are among the most important in helping to understand U.S. national security and foreign policies.  They are widely used by students, other historians, and researchers seeking to better understand this history.

In addition to these requirements, the FY 2020 NDAA requires that the Secretary of Defense include in the report on the DOD’s declassification backlog, a plan for the DOD to adopt and implement technologies into declassification processes called for by ISOO Director Bradley.

In the last two ISOO Annual Reports to the President (2017 and 2018), Bradley particularly underscored the need to modernize the current framework for classification and declassification, which has become unsustainable due to the unabated deluge of electronic information. In the most recent report, he noted the lack of spending by Federal agencies “on new applications to support precise, consistent, and accurate classification decisions or technologies and processes to prepare for the declassification, decontrol, and public access reviews of large volumes of classified information and CUI in electronic formats.” As required by the FY 2020 NDAA, the submission to Congress of a DOD plan to adopt and implement technologies into declassification processes must serve as a good step toward meeting this ever-growing challenge.