As part of recent sequestration cuts, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has closed its Historical Collections Division, which had been tasked with voluntary declassification of important historical records, including documents related to the Bay of Pigs, the Cold War and the Korean War. The responsibilities of the Historical Records Division will be transferred to the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office, an office that already has a growing backlog of FOIA requests and appeals.
Unfortunately, transparency programs are often the first victims of budget cuts. For example, Sunlight has been fighting to maintain funding for online transparency programs that the federal government supports through its Electronic Government Fund, which faces continued threats to its existence.
According to the CIA’s annual FOIA reports, the agency has consistently faced an increasing number of requests and corresponding backlog increase over the last four years. The agency’s most recent report indicates that at the conclusion of the 2012 fiscal year, 1,147 requests remained unprocessed – a 159 request increase from the former year. Clearly, the FOIA office of the CIA is not in a position to prioritize declassification review.
Even prior to the closure of the Historical Collections Division, declassification numbers were down. The National Archives and Records Administration recently reported that during FY 2012, the government declassified only 20 million records – the lowest number since the Reagan Administration.
We’ve written before about declassification of historical records. These records give the public greater details about past public policy decisions and help scholars see the context of wars, political scandals, and historic eras. They are essential to having a more complete picture of American history.
To place the responsibility for reviewing troves of classified data on an already overburdened FOIA office undercuts the Obama Administration’s stated transparency goals. Transparency is essential to a properly functioning democracy, and providing ample budgets for declassification and FOIA offices is money well spent.