How to Bury a Secret: Turn It Into Paperwork (US)





At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, something profound happened in the government secrecy system. With little fanfare, the paradigm of secrecy shifted.

The days when secrets would be secret forever officially ended that night. Some 700 million pages of secret documents became unsecret. No longer were they classified. They became . . . public. Imagine it: Some 400 million formerly classified pages at the National Archives, another 270 million at the FBI, 30 million elsewhere, all emerging into the sunshine of open government, squinting and pale, like naked mole rats.

This would seem a victory for freedom of information, just as President Bill Clinton envisioned when he signed Executive Order 12958 in 1995 (affirmed by President Bush in 2003), which mandated that 25-year-old documents be automatically declassified unless exempted for national security or other reasons.

But it is not so simple. There is a dirty little secret about these secrets: They remain secreted away. You still can't rush down to the National Archives to check them out. In fact, it could be years before these public documents can be viewed by the public.

Fifty archivists can process 40 million pages in a year, but now they are facing 400 million. The backlog, inside the National Archives II facility in College Park, measures 160,000 cubic feet inside a massive classified vault with special lighting and climate controls to preserve old paper. Row upon row of electronically operated steel shelves, all a pale gray, hold hundreds of thousands of document boxes buffered to fight destructive acidity. The place feels like the set of a science fiction movie, all pristine and orderly and hushed.



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