Agencies with classified data seek automation to get ahead of digital records ‘tsunami’

A deluge of electronic records is taking a toll on the government’s mostly pen-and-paper system for declassifying records: that’s the big takeaway of a report to the president from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Information Security Oversight Office.

ISOO reports in recent years have spelled out variations of the same warning — that the government’s recordkeeping for secret and sensitive documents has reached a breaking point, and that it can’t keep pace with what director Mark Bradley has called a “tsunami” of electronic records.

The office’s annual reports have also reiterated the same solution: replacing aging IT systems and automating more of the redaction process to help employees keep up with a demanding workload.

But this time around, ISOO has made a few adjustments to its tried-and-true template.

First, the office has boiled last year’s 69-page report down to a dozen pages. Gone are the graphs and charts the agency used in prior years to track a surge in the number of documents agencies have had to review for declassification in recent years.

Instead, this year’s report gives a snapshot of where agencies are now, and calls for making classification a bigger part of the Trump administration’s IT modernization agenda.

“It’s much shorter than traditional ISOO reports have been,” Bradley said in an interview. “The reason being is that I wanted this one actually read cover-to-cover by the highest officials in the United States government.”

As a former CIA officer with experience writing daily intelligence briefings for the president, Bradley said it’s important to keep the message concise.

“In order to get what attention I can, I have to make my presentation as short and to the point as I can, so that’s why this report looks the way that it does,” he said, adding that this more streamlined way of writing the report might continue as a trend for future reports.

In order to get a better handle on the process, ISOO has looked inward and considered ways to improve its oversight. To start, they’ve reached out to agencies in an effort to develop more meaningful and accurate metrics.

“We’re going back to the government agencies and saying, ‘Look, how exactly are you producing all this data?’ And two, are we asking the right questions to be able to give proper oversight of this? And three, tell us what information you think would be the most helpful to you to improve your practices,” Bradley said. “It’s an idea that we can’t stand still as an oversight entity. Otherwise, we won’t be adding much value to what we’re trying to improve.”

But in order to convince Congress and the administration to make declassification activities a line item in upcoming budgets, and not just relegated to general spending, Bradley said agencies need to crunch the numbers on how much they’re spending right now.

Last year, ISOO estimated the cost to maintain the current classification system rose to more than $18.3 billion, but Bradley said those numbers might not tell the whole story.

“No one can tell you in the United States government how much the current system costs — how much it costs to classify and declassify national security information. The numbers are all over the field. So right now, we’re trying to get our arms around exactly what kind of numbers we’re even talking about, with the current system, much less trying to forecast what it’s going to cost,” he said. “But what we do know is this: whatever measurements are being used, they’re not standard, and they’re not being applied across the entire federal branch.”

In order to help drive down costs and reduce the workload, ISOO has recommended investing in emerging technology to automate parts of the declassification process amid a surge in demand.

“A lot of this stuff’s going to have to be automated, in the sense that machines are going to have to mark the stuff and the machine are also going to have to declassify it. It’s becoming too much now for the human reviewers,” Bradley said.” We don’t have enough reviewers to review anywhere near the volume of records that we’re beginning to face.”

But in order to overhaul the process and get ahead of the volume of documents, Bradley said modernization needs to happen “holistically” across the government.

“It doesn’t do any good for the CIA to have a Cadillac system, and the Department of Commerce not to, because the CIA then can’t share information with the Department of Commerce. That’s a problem because the Department of Commerce needs to know some of the threat information,” he said.

Recent data has shown agencies keep declassifying about the same percentage of documents each year, despite an increasing workload.

In fiscal 2017, agencies reviewed more than 83 million pages of documents and declassified about 45%, or 46 million pages. In FY 2008, agencies reviewed more than 51 million pages and released less than 40%, or 31 million pages.

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