House, Senate conference slashes Defense Department’s declassification budget

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

The House and Senate Armed Services committees last week agreed in conference committee to slash the Defense Department's declassification budget, allowing the agency only $51 million to handle efforts to unseal classified reports.

Open-government advocates said the cut — part of the $290 billion defense authorization bill currently before Congress — would effectively put an end to an unprecedented streak of government declassification.

“The whole thing is disappointing,” said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “And it's interesting to consider that there is a cap on the costs of declassification but no caps on classification activities. I think that tells you something about the character of our current Congress.”

Between 1995 and 1998, the government declassified more than 600 million pages of documents as part of a 1995 order from President Clinton. To carry out the order, the Defense Department has spent about $200 million each year to unseal historical documents from its more than $3 billion annual classification budget.

Clinton's order called for the automatic release of government reports sealed more than 25 years ago. Such an order means that most classified documents no longer require a line-by-line review to be declassified, thus reducing the growing backlog of records more quickly.

But a federal law passed last year — the 1999 Defense Authorization Act — suspended Clinton's order until the Department of Energy and the National Archives could develop a plan to ensure that sensitive nuclear weapons information protected by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 would not be released

Aftergood says declassification serves as “a successful and effective information security program.”

By reducing the volume of information that has to be protected, defense officials can tighten security on those documents that need the most protection, Aftergood said.

But he says Congress doesn't seem to understand the concept, considering that the $51 million allocation makes up a scant 2% of the total Defense Department's $3 billion classification budget.

The White House has opposed such cuts in the declassification allocation, noting in a May 27 statement that such cuts “would cripple the President's efforts to declassify information which has lost its national security sensitivity and is over 25 years old.”

The White House said declassification “reduces high safeguarding costs” and “enhances security by ensuring that secrecy is respected and reserved for only the most important secrets.”

The budget approved by the joint conference of the House and Senate Armed Services committees now goes to the full floor of both houses for approval.