December 23, 2006

On December 31, 2006, at midnight on the dot, hundreds of millions of pages of U.S. government secrets will be revealed. Or at least they'll no longer be official secrets -- it may actually take months or more for the National Archives and Records Administration to make those pages available for public consumption. The NARA is already dealing with a multi-million page backlog.

But in theory if not in immediate practice, what was set in motion by the Clinton administration in 1995 is coming to fruition. Executive Order 12958 declared that in 2000, every classified document 25 years of age or older would be automatically declassified unless the classifying agency had already sought and received that document's exemption (anything that could cause an "identifiable" risk to national security, would violate a person's privacy or involves more than one agency is exempt). After two three-year extensions granted by the Bush administration in response to cries from the CIA, FBI, NSA and other agencies that they didn't have the manpower to review all of their papers in time, the final deadline has arrived. And President Bush is enforcing it.

Scholars of history, conspiracy theorists and freedom-of-information activists everywhere are doing a happy dance like none you've ever seen. We're talking about a treasure trove of historical documents, secrets that have been kept for decades, suddenly stripped of its Top Secret, Secret or Confidential status. According to Michigan State University, the trove can include letters, telegrams, background checks, reports from war zones and cabinet-level meeting minutes, for a start.

Any government agency that has classified documents is involved in the declassification process. Organizations that deal in secrets, like the FBI, CIA, NSA and Department of Defense are releasing the largest volumes of paper: The FBI alone will be declassifying 270 million pages. The NSA is declassifying at least 35 million.

So what can we expect to learn when these pages become accessible to the public? We're not talking about small secrets here. Experts says the documents will tell us about the inner workings of such events and periods as World War II; the Cold War; the McCarthy-era search for Communist sympathizers in the United States and the very real presence of Soviet spies in the U.S. government's upper ranks; the Cuban missile crisis; the Vietnam War and the government's anti-war-protestor activities including surveillance and penetration of activist groups; the CIA's secret experiments with LSD; the Camp David Accords that resulted in a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt; the Iran hostage crisis in 1979; and the Soviet Union's attack on Afghanistan that same year.

What we won't be finding out about are specific war strategies, information on weapons of mass destruction, spy identities and other documents that would put specific people or the United States at risk.

Before this Executive Order for automatic declassification, scholars and the general public had to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a specific document to be declassified after its classification status had run out. If no one filed a request, a document remained secret even though technically it was no longer classified.

For more information on declassified government documents and related topics, check out the following links:

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