Sheryl Shenberger is saddled with a Herculean task.
As the first director of the National Archives National Declassification Center, she is charged with sifting through 409 million pages of classified records as part of a transparency initiative by the Obama administration.
“The center epitomizes open government,” Shenberger said last week at the National Archives Building, where six newly declassified documents are on display.
Created by an executive order President Obama signed in December 2009, the National Declassification Center is a clearinghouse for sensitive information. The documents under its purview have already been referred for declassification but require archival processing before release to the public. In some cases, as when the documents concern nuclear weapons or the president’s safety, the center will undertake a further review of their sensitivity.
Shenberger admits that “sensitivity” is a nebulous concept. The decision to declassify “is not just dictated by age,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that everyone knows what everybody else is doing and we work together.”
Apart from managing the center’s staff—who are employees of the National Archives—Shenberger is responsible for personnel detailed to the center by other agencies, such as the CIA and the Pentagon. Since she took over the center in June 2010, she has overseen the declassification of 18 million documents, 17 million of which are now available to the public.
At the time of her appointment, Shenberger was praised by U.S. Archivist David Ferriero for her appreciation of the “balance needed between protecting national-security information and providing for the release of historically valuable records.” Previously a branch chief of the CIA Declassification Center, she has been part of a variety of interagency committees and working groups, including serving as the CIA representative to the External Referral Working Group, in many ways a forerunner of the center.
Before that, Shenberger was a branch chief in the CIA Counterterrorism Center, a desk officer with the CIA Crime and Narcotics Center, and a senior imagery analyst for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, housed in the Defense Department. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and a master’s degree in English from North Carolina State University.
Back at the National Archives Building, Shenberger pointed to the display, which contains six documents in English and French detailing German secret-ink formulas at the end of World War I. At the time of their release three months ago, they were thought to be the oldest documents still classified by the United States.
Hardly the stuff of international subterfuge, the formulas are straight out of a Nancy Drew book. Here’s how to produce secret ink, a la handwriting expert Theodore Kytka: “Dip a tooth pick in common milk and write between lines of an ordinary letter. The writing will appear by being ironed out with a hot flatiron.”
“I know it seems [quaint], but in its time, this methodology was very sensitive,” said Shenberger. “Still, I think it was about time to reveal these to the public.”
This article appears in the July 18, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.