DOD documents go from being classified to 'webified'

The Defense department has millions of pages of classified documents, going back decades, stored in manila folders inside boxes at the National Record Center in Suitland, Md., and Archives II at College Park, Md.

The paper and microfilm documents include policy decisions, intelligence reports, treaty negotiations, chemical and biological studies, and weapons development reports once classified as top-secret.

Defense and contractor reviewers are painstakingly examining the documents'line by line, page by page'to see if they can be declassified. After the manual review, officials use high-speed, flatbed scanners to capture the declassified documents and transfer them to TIFF images. The documents are scanned using Kofax Ascent Capture software from Kofax Image Products of Irvine, Calif.

Ultimately, the declassified images will be downloaded and cataloged by number in Microsoft Access databases and made available online and in paper format at the National Archives and Records Administration. The process makes the documents suitable for posting to an Internet server and allows keyword searches.

'The long-term goal for the Office of the Secretary of Defense is having an electronic reading room,' said Donald Kirkley Jr., vice president of information management services for McNeil Technologies Inc. of Springfield, Va.

McNeil received the initial contract to convert the documents in February 1998. That contract was extended last October. The company will return the documents to OSD on CD-ROMs.
Bob Storer, OSD's program manager for the declassification project, touted the public access to information that will come out of the work.

'The average American person can see what their government did 50 years ago,' Storer said. 'It's going to help historians, researchers, it's just going to open up a whole new avenue for the American people. I think it's really important.'

10-year deadline

The declassification work was mandated by an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995. The order called for agencies to reduce the life of a classified document. It gave agencies 10 years from the date a document is deemed classified to begin the process of declassifying it.

Documents that were classified before 1995 have 25 years to be reviewed for declassification. Currently Defense and contractor teams are reviewing documents from 1977, Storer said.

But just because a document is declassified doesn't mean it is ready for public release, Storer said. Clinton established nine areas that would exempt a classified document from being declassified.

There's another advantage to declassifying the documents and turning them into electronic records, Kirkley said. It is cheaper and takes less time than paper documents to sift through and review. 'It's more of an economic thing,' he said.

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