In the darkened stacks of a nondescript building in the suburbs outside Washington, dozens of federal employees wearing protective gloves spend day after day sifting through millions of pages of secret documents, some of them nearly a century old.
The 70 staffers of the National Declassification Center are charged with deciding – anonymously and quietly – which of the nation’s old secrets can be laid bare for the world to see.
They have a backlog of hundreds of millions of pages marked for possible declassification, and they’re able to release those that don’t reveal information about weapons of mass destruction, harm diplomatic relations or threaten the safety of the president of the United States. But no one believes they’ll be able to make a year-end deadline set by President Barack Obama. And in the meantime, the government is classifying even more secrets.
After three and half years, just 70 million pages have been released, including the Pentagon Papers and a World War I-era recipe for secret ink. Another 45 million pages have been kept classified. The rest have yet to be fully processed. (Because the material is more than 25 years old, it’s paper and not the disks, microfilm and emails that came later.)
“It’s not going to happen,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, and is an expert on – and prominent critic of – government secrecy. “That should be a signal to everyone that the system is broken. Not even the president can make it work.”
Meanwhile, the government can’t keep up with the ever-escalating onslaught of classified documents, which are accumulating faster than ever before because of the growing bureaucracy, switch to electronic data and a prevailing culture of secrecy.
Each day, federal agencies spend more time, money and effort classifying documents than declassifying them.