Mandatory Declassification Not Yet Applied to Jonestown Documents

Jonestown documents currently classified and withheld by U.S. government entities may become available under a mandatory declassification order that went into effect 31 December 2006. According to Executive Order 12958, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and subsequently amended, classified records that have permanent historical value are to be automatically declassified 25 years after their original classification date.

There are a number of exceptions to the order, however. Documents would continue to be withheld if government officials believe that declassification would reveal the identity of confidential sources, would reveal intelligence that could impair national security, or reveal other information that might damage U.S. interests.

Certainly the death of a U.S. Member of Congress – namely Leo J. Ryan – would seem to make the Jonestown documents of permanent historical value. Nevertheless, some documents may continue to be withheld because their classification occurred as recently as the early 1990s, therefore exempting them from the mandatory order.

President Clinton’s 1995 executive order created the Information Security Oversight Office. The agency’s two main tasks are to set guidelines so that a minimum number of government documents are classified, and to insure that national security information is declassified in a timely manner.

Toward that second goal, ISOO coordinates activities of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) which began meeting regularly in 2006 in order to facilitate the identification and declassification of records “on specific subjects that are of extraordinary public interest.” The PIDB works on declassifying records of “permanent historical value” that relate to U.S. national security policy, such as the Iran-Contra affair, prisoners of war/missing in action in Vietnam, Chile under the Pinochet regime, and Nazi war crimes.[i]

The 2006 ISOO report reveals a number of discouraging trends, however.[ii] Not surprisingly, secrecy under the Bush Administration increased dramatically, going from 105,163 original classification decision made in 1996 under Clinton, to a high of 351,150 decisions in 2004. While that figure dropped in 2005 to 258,633, and further in 2006 to 231,995, these numbers still more than double those of the previous administration.

Despite some federal departments decreasing the number of original classification decisions, the Justice Department increased its share. Similarly, the number of pages that have been declassified decreased under Bush: from 196 million declassified in 1996, to 37.6 million in 2006. The 2006 ISOO Report proclaims that 1.33 billion pages have been declassified in the period 1980 to 2006, but by far the majority of declassification actions occurred before 2001: in six years under Clinton, 864 million pages were declassified; in six years under Bush, 282.1 million pages have been declassified.

In addition, news reports in February 2006 revealed that intelligence agencies were removing thousands of documents from the open shelves of the National Archives. The CIA and five other agencies reclassified 55,000 documents that had been available to the public. The seven-year-old secret program came to light when an intelligence historian noticed that items he had previously photocopied were no longer available. Allen Weinstein, chief archivist, called for a moratorium on the process at that time.

Classification and declassification relate to public access to governmentdocuments as governed under the Freedom of Information Act. The Fourth of July in 2006 marked the fortieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law. The purpose of FOIA is to grant access to government records by law, “adding available information to the tools necessary to make freedom of expression work in a democratic society.”[iii]

In theory, FOIA allows any member of the public to ask any government agency for almost any government document, without having to provide reasons for wanting the information or explaining what will be done with the records. The act permits agencies to withhold documents – again, in theory – only if they fall under one of the law’s nine exemptions, such as national security, protecting confidential sources, maintaining individuals’ privacy, and preserving the secrecy of law enforcement methods.

Congress amended FOIA in 1974 to correct problems immediately identified, such as long delays, exorbitant charges, unreasonable requests by agencies for precise descriptions, and excessive withholding of documents. Congress has done little since then, although federal court case law has refined FOIA extensively. McGehee v. CIA, for example – an earlier FOIA lawsuit filed by the editor of the jonestown report – requires an agency to search for its records from the date on which an appeal is decided, rather than from the date of the initial request. Given the fact that years elapse between filing a request and receiving a judicial decision, McGehee v. CIA helps requesters enormously by including more documents in a given search.

Editorials and news articles reflecting upon the fortieth anniversary of FOIA in July 2006 noted other problems. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government reported that the backlog of FOIA requests at 22 federal agencies rose to 31% in 2005, up from a 20% backlog in 2004.[iv] The slow-down was attributable, in part, to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 2001 directive that encouraged agencies to deny information requested under FOIA.

On the occasion of FOIA’s fortieth anniversary, former President Jimmy Carter observed, “Obstructionist policies and deficient practices have ensured that many important public documents and official actions remain hidden from our view.”[v] According to Carter, nearly 70 countries have adopted freedom of information legislation which is far more comprehensive and effective than that in the U.S. “While the United States retreats,” he said, “the international trend toward transparency grows.”

Constituent and public pressure will always be required to secure the release of Jonestown documents. We are hoping that in 2008, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown deaths, scholars, relatives, and the media will be able to gain complete access. But we have no doubt that it will require a Democratic Congress and the strong support of a ranking member of the House Government Operations Subcommittee to do so.

For more information on Executive Order 12958 – Classified National Security Information, as Amended – go to:


[i] Information Security Oversight Office, 2005 Report to the President

[ii] Figures in this paragraph come from ISOO, 2006 Report to the President

[iii] Sam Archibald, “The Early Years of the Freedom of Information Act: 1955 to 1974,” PS: Political Science and Politics 26, no. 4 (December 1993): 731.

[iv] Alan Johnson, “Feds less eager to share records; Study finds a slower response to requests,” The Columbus Dispatch, 1 July 2006, A7.

[v] Jimmy Carter, “America has far too many secrets,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 July 2006, B7.