At the Corner of Top Secret and Deja Vu

After a State Department career, Ed Chesky went to work reviewing records to see if they could be made public.
After a State Department career, Ed Chesky went to work reviewing records to see if they could be made public. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

If you took all the paper that the federal government produces every year and laid it on the ground end to end, you would get in a lot of trouble. Those are official papers, bub. What are you doing laying them on the ground end to end? You're just going to get them dirty or damaged or lost. And that would make life really, really hard for Ed Chesky.

Ed is one of dozens of people in town who have a peculiarly Washingtonian sort of job. They pore over federal records and help determine which formerly secret documents don't need to be secret anymore.

Ed not only reads them. He wrote some of them.

Take, for example, a report Ed wrote decades ago, when he was an economist for the State Department. It was about the railroad industry in Sudan, where he was stationed at the time. Ed was at the National Archives facility in College Park when he pulled the report from a box of folders. Rereading his words transported him to an overnight sleeper train on its way to Port Sudan. As the train chugged through the desert, it was not a stretch for Ed to think the Sudanese might be in the market for some new locomotives from the U.S.A.

Ed is 82 now, long retired from the government. He isn't really sure what actions his Sudanese railroad report prompted, and that's probably the case with a lot of the documents he and others sift through. Paper may be the fuel that fires the furnace of bureaucracy, but not every memo is a future smoking gun, not every bit of governmental prose the Gettysburg Address.

Executive Order No. 12958 states that, with a few exceptions, federal records are to be automatically declassified when they become 25 years old. Even so, said the Archives' Jeanne Schauble, "no agencies have been willing to let their records be automatically declassified without them having some opportunity to make sure there's nothing in them they feel needs continued classification."

Thus, people like Ed. He works with three colleagues vetting the papers of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He knows the subject matter and still has his security clearance. If a document includes material from another agency -- a snippet from the Central Intelligence Agency in a State Department report, for example -- that other agency has to take a look. Among the agencies reviewing their records -- and sometimes passing them to other agencies -- are the State Department, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Energy and the CIA.

"It gets to be a rather complex process," Jeanne said. "I can say that after review generally somewhere from 85 to 90 percent will be cleared."

In some agencies, the number of documents that are declassified is classified.

(I can't believe I just typed that sentence.)

"We've been creating classified documents for 200 years, I suppose," Ed said. The documents he evaluates are stamped things like "Top Secret," "Secret," "Confidential," "Limited Official Use." When he started 20 years ago, he was looking at documents from the Marshall Plan. Now he's pretty much caught up to the present -- that is, today minus 25 years.

"Most of it's not very exciting or very sensitive," Ed said, "but there's a few needles in the haystack."

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