The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) recently hosted an open meeting to discuss its recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System, focusing on declassification prioritization. PIDB continues to advocate for public discussion on the report. This meeting represented opportunities to highlight recommendations from the report, continue the conversation about the current declassification system, and discuss the topics citizens want prioritized for declassification.
The meeting also hosted a panel discussion on “Perspectives on Prioritizing Government Records for Declassification and Public Access,” featuring Stephen Randolph, Historian at the Department of State; Joseph Lambert, Director of Information Management Services at the Central Intelligence Agency; Michael Dobbs, Journalist and Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Museum; and Stephen Aftergood from the Federation of American Scientists.
My opening remarks at the meeting were an opportunity to emphasize the importance of the National Archives’ role in this democratic process, and to highlight the work we are doing to eliminate the declassification backlog and modernize records management practices:
When people have open access to government information, they are able to hold government accountable for its actions. This is an essential part of our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1789: “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
The Public Interest Declassification Board is playing an important part in this democratic process by continuing to invite public comment on improving the security classification system. I thank the PIDB for hosting this meeting and for beginning its latest conversation with the public on a topic that is important to the National Archives—helping us improve the efficiency and effectiveness of declassification programs so that we can continue to provide important information to the American people.
I also want to thank Senator Shaheen for her tireless support of the National Archives over the years. She is a true friend, and I am honored to have her here this morning.
Last December, I congratulated the PIDB for its report on “Transforming the Security Classification System.” I noted then that many of their recommendations were at the heart of our mission here at the National Archives. I want to take this opportunity to tell you what we have done to support the PIDB’s recommendations since the report was issued:
First, our National Declassification Center continues to make progress in eliminating a backlog of 354 million pages awaiting final declassification review. As an agency, we are committed to eliminating this backlog. The success of the NDC is due in large part to the participation, cooperation, and the hard work of all agencies with equities in the records. NDC processes support a necessary culture change and the result has led to improvements in the quality of declassification reviews and to increases in the volume of records reviewed. As the current backlog is eliminated, the NDC intends to develop a prioritization plan for records accessioned since January 1, 2010. They will ask users to comment on this plan and also allow users to make their own suggestions for special projects that should be considered for declassification.
The NDC and the National Archives also held several public conferences to highlight declassified documents of extraordinary historical significance. With help from agencies, these conferences told the stories of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the building of the Berlin Wall, the role of intelligence during the Bosnian War, and most recently, the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. Please join us here for the next public conference on January 14, “Living with the Berlin Wall,” which will showcase over 12,000 newly declassified documents.
Still, there is more work ahead as our government must find ways to use technology to improve and increase declassification. As we eliminate the current backlog, we want to make sure new backlogs don’t build up. Our government must also deal effectively with large volumes of electronic records so that citizens may access them.
The recommendations in PIDB’s report support our efforts to help agencies modernize records management in the Executive branch. We have led an extensive outreach program to educate, train, and assist agencies as they make the necessary improvements. We issued guidance to help agencies meet the President’s goal of fully managing their email records electronically, and we issued guidance on managing social media records. Finally, in September, the National Archives held a “Grand Challenge to Industry” day, bringing government leaders and private sector industry experts and technologists together to begin finding viable, automated records management solutions.
Within our agency, the Office of Government Information Services continues to serve the American public by providing mediation services to resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes. OGIS has assisted nearly 2,000 FOIA requesters and closed over 350 cases in fiscal year 2013. At the policy level, OGIS provided five recommendations to Congress on improving FOIA processing. OGIS developed an online FOIA portal that now serves as the model for the development of a government-wide FOIA portal. This will be a space for journalists, researchers, and citizens to file FOIA requests, track progress, and see the results.
I am pleased that the PIDB is using its Transforming Classification blog to solicit suggestions from the public on what should be prioritized for declassification. Public participation is essential for our democracy to thrive and grow. We are interested in learning what records our users want to see reviewed for declassification, and we are committed to using the resources of the National Declassification Center and the Presidential Libraries to support this effort.
Thank you for your efforts to make our government more transparent and open and for continuing to advocate for your recommendations to make government more effective and efficient.
Thanks to Steve Aftergood for leading a stimulating panel discussion. I was particularly struck by Steve’s own challenge to the traditional prioritization process which he expanded upon in his own blog, Secrecy News on the 25th of November. Make declassification decisions because of their topicality or “gradually declassify everything in an orderly and systematic way”? Or do some of both? Your thoughts?