The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a public meeting the morning of Thursday, June 19, 2014.
We will include more details about the agenda, location and time of the meeting, as well as information about how to register to attend in a future blog post.
Please visit the PIDB’s website, http://www.archives.gov/declassification/pidb/, and continue to follow the PIDB’s blog, Transforming Classification, for more information about the PIDB’s activities.
The Boston Globe published an article yesterday titled, “U.S. lags in airing its old secrets.” It discusses the challenges facing the National Declassification Center (NDC) and the effect current declassification policies and practices have on providing timely access to historical records at the National Archives and Records Administration. In the article, journalist Bryan Bender quotes PIDB Chair, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, as she offers insight into the challenges facing the system: “The current system is simply not capable of addressing the vast volume of information… It requires agencies to be willing to take a small additional risk for much more benefit.” The PIDB made several recommendations to improve declassification policies and processes in its 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System. The PIDB recommended new policies that, if adopted, will facilitate greater public access records that are historically relevant and significant and do it sooner. Current declassification review policies are ill-suited for the looming challenges of Big Data. Among other recommendations, the PIDB wrote of the need for new policies that allow for risk-based reviews and the use of technology to make declassification more efficient and effective. The article discusses other obstacles the NDC faces while trying to provide public access to the records, including the divergent quality of reviews, the previously poor treatment many records received from agencies and the frequent assertion by agencies that whole categories of records cannot be released to the public using the NDC’s sampling process, which mitigates risk to increase the release rate of records by the agencies. Despite these challenges, the PIDB believes the NDC remains committed to working with agencies to push for greater reforms and modernization. However, it must adopt new policies and have sufficient resources and tools – including technology – to fulfill its mission in the digital age. The PIDB believes greater reform is needed to modernize a 70-year old system into one that is capable of handling petabytes of government information.
For more insight into the challenges facing the NDC and the larger declassification system, you can read the Boston Globe article here.
We are pleased to announce that two bills were introduced this week that, if enacted, will extend the term of the PIDB.
On May 19, 2014, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced H.R. 4671, “To extend the Public Interest Declassification Act of 2000,” and on May 21, 2014, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform marked up the bill. The bill passed by voice vote and was ordered to be reported to the full House of Representatives.
H. R. 4671, as amended, will extend the PIDB until December 31, 2017, and also gives the PIDB an opportunity to report on its work to the Congress during the next three years, beginning 180 days after enactment with a report to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Additionally, there are provisions in the bill that direct expedited declassification review under priorities set by the National Declassification Center (NDC) and that promote the sharing of declassification guidance between the NDC and agencies. These measures were previously included in a bill introduced by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James Risch (R-ID) to aid further transformative recommendations made by the PIDB in our 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System.
On May 20, 2014, Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI) introduced H.R. 4681, “Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015,” which was reported out of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on May 22, 2014. H.R. 4681 will extend the PIDB until December 31, 2018 and allow the PIDB to continue advocating for changes to modernize the security classification system.
The PIDB welcomes the opportunity to share its findings with the Congress and the administration and thanks the Congress for supporting its work.
On behalf of the members of the Public Interest Declassification Board, I would like to thank Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker for her dedicated service to the PIDB and acknowledge her extensive contributions. Elizabeth concluded her third term as a member of the PIDB and we are lucky to have had her knowledge and expertise during her tenure. It has been a pleasure working with her and we have certainly treasured her company these past eight years. She was an inaugural member of the PIDB and was present at its first meeting on Saturday, February 25, 2006. Her passion and advocacy for transparency and responsible declassification have guided our work, benefiting the public and advancing needed conversations about balancing national security imperatives and the principles inherent to our democracy. Elizabeth possesses a unique understanding of how secrecy affects the functioning of our legal system, including insights as to how the growing body of “secret law” and the issues surrounding precedence affect public access to government information. Among her many accomplishments as a member of the PIDB, Elizabeth played a vital role in writing both of the PIDB’s Reports to the President, Improving Declassification and Transforming the Security Classification System. We have valued her thoughtful insights, wit and wisdom and hope she will continue to engage with the PIDB in her new emerti status. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kindness, dedication, and professionalism. We will greatly miss you and we wish you the best both personally and professionally.
The members and staff of the Public Interest Declassification Board attended and participated in many events last week to commemorate Sunshine Week. We thank the public and representatives from civil society and open government advocacy groups, Government agencies, the Congress and all attendees who participated in Sunshine Week activities. The Board wishes to thank the Washington College of Law’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy for hosting its Seventh Annual Freedom of Information Day Celebration at the American University. Board Member Ken Wainstein participated in a panel addressing current national security classification developments, as did John Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office and Executive Secretary of the Board. In case you missed it, you can view the forum here. The large number of participants at this event and at other events reinforces our belief that citizens are interested in actively engaging with Government. Sunshine Week highlights citizen interest in participating in policy discussions and in holding Government accountable for its decisions. We will continue to advocate for national security classification and declassification reform and advocate for policies to improve Government transparency. We heard of the need for appropriate and effective oversight of our Government’s activities, particularly those involving the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the monitoring of intelligence activities by the Congress. At the American University, panelists discussed the implications of FOIA-related legislation, as well as observations and recommendations regarding the policies surrounding the Government’s use of surveillance activity. Ken Wainstein and John Fitzpatrick discussed the challenges of over-classification, recent Government efforts to reduce the scope of classification, and noted the difficulty in changing a long-standing culture of secrecy ingrained in system users.
Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, provided a lunchtime address that largely reinforced many of the recommendations we seek in our Transforming the Security Classification System report. Mr. Litt affirmed the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) commitment to improving the transparency of the Intelligence Community. He acknowledged the need for the all intelligence agencies to reassess their view on secrecy and strike a better balance between transparency and secrecy so the American people have a clearer understanding of how the work of these agencies keep us safe. He noted the need for sufficient transparency for informed debate and a discussion on the limits of intelligence policies and practices. Most importantly though, Mr. Litt discussed the causes and prevalence of over-classification, noting that in his view, FOIA case officers should ask not only if they can classify and redact information, but whether or not they should when conducting reviews. Although a risk adverse culture persists, Mr. Litt iterated the leadership commitment of the DNI and of senior leaders at intelligence agencies to change this culture to one more open and transparent.
The issue of cultural change discussed during Sunshine Week reinforces the importance of the work of the President’s Security Classification Reform Committee (SCRC). We are pleased that the President adopted our primary recommendation and established this committee. We are also pleased that the President included several of our recommendations as specific action items in his Second National Action Plan for Open Government. As the SCRC begins its work, we will continue to advocate for our recommendations and believe, if adopted, they will improve our nation’s security and improve Government transparency. We look forward to seeing the results of the SCRC and having the Government act on our recommendations.
At the conclusion of Sunshine Week, we reaffirm our commitment to more an open and transparent government. We invite you to continue the discussion about open government and freedom of information by commenting on our recommendations on our blog.
The annual celebration of Sunshine Week reminds us of the need for greater transparency in government and greater public access to government information. As part of the initiative to promote freedom of information, we, the members of the Public Interest Declassification Board, renew our call on the need to transform our nation’s security classification system. Our 2012 Report to the President provides recommendations that will serve our citizens and our government in the digital age we live in and provides meaninful access to declassified national security information.
The climate of suspicion surrounding the management of national security information requires a new approach to access that promotes “more sunshine earlier.” Under the current system, the public waits 25 or even 50 years or more for declassification to automatically occur. The two channels for requesting access to national security information (one the Freedom of Information Act, the other being Manadatory Declassification Review) are bogged down with long queues and uneven reviews. Subjective declassification decisions are often dependent on the quality and care of individual reviewers and challenging agencies on these reviews is a long and arduous process.
We believe we need an entirely new construct to perform declassification efficiently and effectively across government. The challenges of managing information created in the era of Big Data require new and innovating thinking, new policies and new beliefs about information if we are ever going to be able to modernize the security classification system. Rote declassification is not the way forward and will not increase nor improve access to government information.
In our 2012 Report to the President, we made a series of recommendations on how best to transform the security classification system. We believe that Sunshine Week is an opportune time to revisit those recommendations and renew the call for increased access to information, a fundamental tenet inherent to our democracy.
During Sunshine Week, our members will participate in and attend events highlighting the importance of citizen access to government information. Throughout the week, Congressional hearings, newspaper editorials, campus gatherings and events across our nation invite citizens to participate in the dialogue of promoting freedom of information and government transparency. There are over 30 events listed on the Sunshine Week website, http://sunshineweek.org. We encourage your participation at these events during Sunshine Week and look forward to hearing about your experiences on our blog.
At the recent conference on the Berlin Wall, the Director of the National Declassification Center (NDC) announced that the NDC completed the quality assurance review of the nearly 352 million pages that constitute the backlog of classified Federal records in the custody of the National Archives. The backlog was a result of previous reviews of poor quality conducted under the automatic declassification provisions established in 1995. Errors made during those reviews precluded public access. The President directed agencies in his 2009 Implementing Memorandum to review these records by the end of 2013. During this review, the NDC used a sampling methodology that focused on identifying information missed in prior reviews concerning the identity of human intelligence sources and key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction. The completion of this quality assurance review is a major step in making these records available. The PIDB congratulates the National Archives, the NDC staff, and the staff from all agencies who participated in the exceptional task of reviewing these records. This is a historic accomplishment worthy of recognition.
The mission of the NDC is “to advance the declassification and public release of historically valuable permanent records while maintaining national security.” In creating the NDC in 2009, the President directed agencies to work more collaboratively with each other, streamline processes, improve quality, and develop standardized training to achieve this goal. Conducting the quality assurance review of the backlog and implementing new processes to keep new backlogs from forming are two critical steps forward as the NDC works with agencies to improve declassification at the National Archives and across Government. We salute your efforts thus far.
The PIDB, the NDC, agencies and the public recognize that challenges and impediments remain. There is still critical work needed to address persisting problems that inhibit public access to these historically significant records. Agencies continue to perform the same page-by-page, pass/fail reviews and use the same risk management practices (that adopt little to no risk) as they have for decades. The way agencies implement Kyl-Lott certification continues to pose a serious obstacle to making records fully available, requiring cumbersome reviews. A public release rate of just 61% during the reviews demonstrates that agencies still make too many unnecessary referrals to each other. Additionally, many important series of records still require privacy and access screening before being made available in the research room. Clearly, we need better risk management and process reforms to improve access.
Despite the recent NDC success, the NDC continues to need support if it is to continue its mission. The way forward should include not only a prioritization plan, but also a commitment to strengthening and modernizing processes and technology at the NDC and agencies. In our 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System, the PIDB recommended that the President strengthen the role and authority of the NDC. The NDC already proved its worth through its backlog accomplishments – and our recommendations, if adopted, will build on that success. Among our other recommendations is a call for a Government-wide declassification policy, led by the NDC, to implement a fully integrated approach to the review of historical records. This action would eliminate many of the referrals now holding up public access to the records. We recommended the piloting and adoption of new technologies and risk management practices to increase access to historical records and prepare for the upcoming automatic declassification of born-digital records. With careful policy and process improvements, we also see an opportunity to provide greater access to obsolete historical nuclear information of our Government, a truly transformational reform. These changes, and many others, will modernize the declassification system for the 21st century and greatly improve public access.
Prioritization remains a challenge and is of particular importance to the public and to the PIDB. Meeting the December 31, 2013 deadline to complete the review of the backlog understandably took precedence in managing the NDC, but now we believe there is an opportunity to improve the way the Government prioritizes records at the NDC and across agencies. The PIDB proposes the NDC considers prioritization as an important and meaningful step forward in making records fully accessible to the public, including younger records and born-digital records typically not selected for review. We hope the declassification priority topics the PIDB is soliciting on our blog and that our upcoming report on our findings will produce a framework to assist the NDC and agencies in their efforts to focus their limited resources on making access available to those records most sought after by requesters.
The PIDB commends the NDC and agencies for working together and with great transparency, and under challenging conditions often not under their control (the partial shutdown of the government was one such challenge). We recognize that under these constraints, many challenges still impede access to and the full release of the entire backlog of records. The PIDB understands there is still much work to be done on the backlog and on newly accessioned records at the NDC. We look forward to working with the NDC to build upon your accomplishments thus far.
The PIDB still wants your suggested topics that you feel agencies should prioritize for declassification. Beginning on January 27, 2014, the PIDB will begin compiling the responses and comments it received on this blog. It will then use those ideas and report back to the public its conclusions and suggested next steps to assist the President in his goal of transforming the security classification system.
Please submit your ideas as soon as you can, but no later than January 26, 2014 to have the PIDB receive them before it issues its upcoming report. The PIDB intends to share its report during the coming months and engage the public in more discussions about ways it can help improve the declassification process.
We thank all of those who have already participated on the blog and look forward to hearing more of your ideas.
We have already received many comments from our followers about what topics you would like to see declassified. Today, we present you with a new list of topics. These topics all relate to records found at the Presidential Libraries.
View the List Here: Topics Related to the Presidential Libraries
Like the other categories on our blog, this list of topics captures what we heard from Agency declassifiers, experts from the Presidential Libraries and the requester community. The topics are listed in alphabetical order for each Presidential Library, not by ranking.
All lists will remain active for comment while the blog is live. Please continue to make comments on this new list and also any other topics you think are important for prioritization.
Your comments will be posted as soon as possible. Please review our blog’s Comment and Posting Policy for more details. Thank you for your continued interest and participation.
We continue to receive comments and feedback on the topics posted on our blog. We have a new list of general topics of interest to share with our followers. This list contains topics of interest that do not fall squarely into one of the other categories we have featured on the blog.
You can view the list here: General Topics of Interest
The topics are listed in alphabetical order, not by ranking. This list captures topics we heard from Agency declassifiers, experts from the Presidential Libraries and the requester community. We still are seeking more public participation.
All of the categories are still open for comment and we invite your continued participation. Remember, this is your opportunity to ensure the PIDB hears your ideas for prioritization.
Your comments will be posted as soon as possible. Please review our blog’s Comment and Posting Policy for more details. Thank you for your continued interest and participation.