Declassification of Historical Congressional Records


Our summer intern, Mike Liu, wrote this fantastic summary of a hearing on the declassification of historical congressional records that was held on Thursday, July 22, 2010, by the Public Interest Declassification Board. (Here’s the agenda [PDF]).

On Thursday July 22, members of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an advisory committee established in 2000, held a public meeting to discuss issues related to the declassification of historical congressional records. In particular, this meeting focused on Issue No. 15 of the PIDB’s 2008 report to the President titled “Improving Declassification.” In the report, the PIDB describes the “irregular and limited” process by which certain congressional records are declassified and offers a series of recommendations for reform. During the meeting, the PIDB held an open dialogue with experienced panelists on the history of declassification and the significant challenges towards a new system.

First Panel

Three speakers were featured in the first panel: Harold Reylea, former CRS specialist, Dr. David Barrett, professor of political science at Villanova, and Don Ritchie, Senate Historian. During their introductory statements and the Q&A segments, several key considerations were brought up.

The first is the question of what Reylea described as the “universe of records,” classified information pertaining to sectors ranging from national defense to atomic energy. The sheer quantity and range of these records span a “considerable number” of congressional committees and slow down the declassification process.

Second is the matter of significance. Over time, the demand for congressional records and other classified documents has increased, especially in academic fields. One example, cited by Mr. Ritchie, was a recently released volume of information on foreign policy during the Vietnam War that provided valuable insight into MoC thought and the origins of the War Powers Act. In order to determine what merits a declassification review, a formalized system must be put in place to determine “historically valuable contributions.” This system must also “not be case by case,” but rather bulk declassification by individual committees so as not to create extensive burdens for the researcher.

Finally, the privileges and prerogatives of Congress were discussed. In order to develop a statutory framework for declassification, the panelists and board agreed that there would have to be consistency between the House and the Senate. One possibility raised would be for each body to pass a resolution creating an arrangement with the National Declassification Center (NDC) and NARA to delegate processing of records. Although this framework would provide much-needed permanency and establish the role of the NDC, Congress is extremely wary of signing away its prerogatives, and thus, full support of congressional leaders must be obtained before proceeding.

Second Panel

The second panel, featuring former CIA director Porter Goss and former Representative Staff Director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Sheehy addressed many of the concerns of the first panel. Both Sheehy and Goss agreed with the major points in the PIDB’s 2007 report, stating that congressional documents are both crucial as research materials and conduits of legislative perspective. The House Records Office, for example, is filled with useful information on committee meetings that directly impacted executive decisions.

“Complete understanding [of executive decisions] must include consideration of the policy discussions in the legislative branch,” stated Mr. Sheehy. There is currently no uniform process for declassification of these documents, and there should be. Mr. Sheehy also explained that House Committees use old documents for two purposes: as foundations for questions at hearings and to establish a sense of previous sentiment. After these older records are archived they are “never used again by committee staff” unless subpoenaed. “A tremendous amount of material is lost to history,” Mr. Sheehy said.

In the case of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s recent declassification of Vietnam Era records, the documents were judged to be “worthwhile, much appreciated, and understood.” There was, however, no appropriated mechanism to bring about this result. Again, the issue of changing House and Senate rules was brought into discussion, and Sheehy suggested the PIDB recommend specific language and collaborate with the House Parliamentarian and the Rules Committee to come up with a more formal, concrete set of recommendations.

Mr. Goss brought to light the “bathtub problem,” which he described as “overclassification. “ “The historical value is the mission,” said Mr. Goss. “How do we define this with the public interest in mind.” According to Mr. Goss, much of the Hill and its information is misunderstood and thus misrepresented by the media (“History will report that this is what happened when there is a different side!” he exclaimed). A formalized declassification process will benefit the public understanding that all citizens of a representative republic are entitled to. “There’s no question that there’s a lot of politics in intel these days,” said Mr. Goss. There is however, a way to create a rich debate around policy without disclosing compromising information by means of selective declassification. One suggestion from the PIDB would be to make the process more topical, allowing for immediate declassification. A concern raised by the PIDB was whether testimony would be impacted by knowledge of expedited declassification.

Both Sheehy and Goss brought up the issue of convincing MoC’s to push for more efficient declassification rules. The distinguished panelists and the PIDB agreed that there must be an exemption carved out for material that can “cause embarrassment for a MoC.” Here, the discussion was more ambiguous, as Sheehy mentioned the senselessness in treating “records of no great importance,” and also mentioned that MoCs would not be concerned with declassification as long as they knew a process existed to maintain security.


The PIDB has dedicated itself to studying the declassification process and making substantive recommendations to Congress. Documents from congressional committees are crucial to policy decisions and no existing provisions for declassification exist. “At the present time, there is appreciation for a complete picture,” said Mr. Sheehy. The board is optimistic that through working with MoCs and the NDC, a formalized process for reviewing and declassifying congressional records will be established.