Automatic declassification of files – Is that the answer to opacity?
The controversy over the disclosure of files relating to Subhash Chandra Bose under the RTI Act has led to the government to look into the issue of disclosure of government files after a certain cooling off period. While most democracies have a system for disclosure of data after the mandatory period, Indian democracy has been plagued with a certain fear of bringing the files into the public domain. Though the details of the Falkland war are known to the public, the Indian government has yet to disclose the reports of the Chinese debacle even after more than half a century. This has called for demands to amend the Officials Secret’s Act and devise a system to make the files public after a certain amount of time. This would provide answers that remain locked in the classified government files and help in a public debate over the differing issues.
On the lines of the UK declassification rules, the Union Government is trying to set up norms that would lead declassification of documents automatically after the passage of 30 years. The government is in the process of setting up a six-member expert committee comprising of senior bureaucrats, established researchers and archivists to look into the issue of declassification of data. The Secretaries of the Home, Law and DoPT have met in the past to deliberate on the issue and after the budget session of the parliament, the committee is likely to meet to examine the norms of what can be declassified and what is to be maintained as “shadow files’’, even beyond the mandatory period. The committee would draft the rules for declassification of government documents kept with the Union and also the states including those with the intelligence agencies.
In the United States, the Executive Order 13526 establishes the mechanisms for most declassification whereby the originating agency assigns a declassification date, by default 10 years. After 25 years, the declassification review is automatic and except for nine exceptions that allow information to continue to be classified, all documents are made public. At 50 years there are two exceptions, and classifications beyond 75 years require special permission. In the United Kingdom, the confidential government papers are withheld for 30 years under the thirty year rule, and released usually on a New Year's Day and this condition has been relaxed under the freedom of information legislation.
Currently, there is no single source – rule or guideline - governing the disclosure of documents or their method of declassification in India. The committee will set the new norms which would define the policy of disclosure and this may involve an amendment in the Official Secrets Act.