Sequestration Helping Keep More Government Secrets Secret

CREDIT: Reuters

The CIA announced on Thursday that it would be shuttering the office responsible for declassifying historical documents in yet another sequestration-related setback to the Obama administration’s transparency goals.

No longer will the Historical Collections Division work to bring the documents detailing the CIA’s exploits throughout the years to public attention, instead turning that task over to its office currently handling Freedom of Information Act requests. “As a result of sequestration, elements of one program office were moved into a larger unit to create efficiencies, but CIA will continue to perform this important work,” said Edward Price, a CIA spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.

The announcement is discouraging, given the slew of new information the Agency has recently released. In just the last week, the CIA has revealed to the public through declassified documents that Area 51 does exist, though is far more boring than one would assume, and published a document in which it acknowledged its role in the overthrow of Iran’s government in 1953. While many of the historical documents will still be declassified as a matter of law, many will now be forced to wait in line with the FOIA requests in an ever-lengthening queue before seeing the light of day.

It’s not just historical documents that are bearing the brunt of the budget cuts, though. According to a report from the National Archives and Records Administration from April, sequestration has forced the government agency to reduce funding dedicated to the declassification of records. “Instead, NARA staff will prepare documents for declassification, in addition to their existing duties,” the report says. “This will slow declassification processes and delay other work, including FOIA responses and special access requests.”

Sequestration kicked in on Jan. 1, 2013, midway through Fiscal Year 2012, and the results can be seen in a marked drop in the amount of materials declassified, according to the Information Security Oversight Office’s latest annual report. The previous fiscal year saw about 20 million documents declassified, the least amount of material made public in the years since the 1980-1994 period. On the other side of the scale, in the same period nearly one billion documents were classified through either the creation of an original classified document or creating new documents based on information in the former category.

When taking office, President Obama seemed committed to increasing transparency throughout the government, launching a review of the procedures for classification. Since then, while some efforts have been made to correct the imbalance between the rate and amount of materials classified and those declassified, the results have not been encouraging with sequestration helping make the case even more grim.

Instead, many critics argue that a system of “overclassification” exists, where items are made secret not because of a national security requirement, but instead a matter of convenience. Critics of the system are as varied as Democratic senators, Republican Congressmen, and the Federation of American Scientists.