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The Public Interest Declassification Board received recognition at a recent academic conference titled The Legal and Civil Policy Implications of “Leaks” at the American University Washington College of Law.  A panel focusing on the legislative response to “leaks” discussed what impact over-classification and the current state of the security classification system have on the prevalence of leaks.  Panelist John B. Dickas, the Legislative Counsel to Senator Ron Wyden on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, cited the Board’s Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System. He agreed that over-classification is a pervasive problem among system users and that the declassification process does not keep pace with user demand.  Moderator Sharon Bradford Franklin, Senior Counsel at the Constitution Project, noted the Board’s report prompted 31 organizations concerned with the Government’s classification activity to send a letter to the President urging him to establish a steering committee as recommended in the Board’s report.

The academic conference gathered government, academic and other private sector experts to discuss the legal and civil policy implications of “leaks” in the “WikiLeaks” era, examining the history of leaks over recent decades, their growing significance in Freedom of Information Act litigation, potential legislative responses on the subject, and the future that can be foreseen with continued advances in information technology.  More information about the academic conference is available here.

The National Security Archive recently highlighted a recommendation from the Board’s report on its Unredacted blog.  The post focused on an aspect of U.S. nuclear deployment history from the early years of the Cold War.  It mentioned the Board’s recommendation to allow obsolete historical nuclear information to be reviewed for declassification.  You can read the blog post here. The Board heard testimony and received extensive comments on the need to reform how agencies treat historical “Formerly Restricted Data.”  Transforming the Security Classification System offers a solution that allows the declassification review of information that is of no operational or military use so the American public can better understand the role nuclear weapons played in winning the Cold War.

The members and staff of the Public Interest Declassification Board attended and participated in many events last week to commemorate Sunshine Week.  We would like to thank the representatives from agencies, civil society and open government advocacy groups, the Congress, the public and all the attendees who participated in these panels and events.  The Board wishes to thank Elizabeth Goitein and the Brennan Center for Justice for hosting a forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled, Secrecy & Security: The Future of Classification Reform.  I enjoyed participating in this lively discussion.  In case you missed it, you can view the forum here.  The discussions and comments from these events highlight the importance of an open and transparent government.  They reinforced our belief that citizens are interested in engaging with Government and they value the importance of democratic discourse.  We heard repeatedly of a deep desire for citizens to participate actively in policy deliberation to be able to hold Government accountable for policy decisions.  The ideals espoused by James Madison are very much present.

We heard about the need to reform the secrecy system:  too much information is needlessly classified and classified information remains inaccessible for too long.  We heard that the classification system is too old, too complicated and is not suited for the post-Cold War information age. We heard that the era of “Big Data” threatens to overwhelm the system and that the current declassification processes will not work in an age of petabytes of information creation.

The panelists’ comments underscored the challenges of the cultural perspectives ingrained in system users and reinforced the Board’s view that only leadership from the White House will drive real reform.  This is precisely why the Board’s first recommendation in our report calls for establishing a Steering Committee accountable to the President to energize and direct agencies to work together to reform the classification system.

The Secrecy & Security forum sparked a serious conversation about the limits of secrecy and offered perspectives on how to transform the security classification system to one that meets the demands of all users in the digital age.  As part of my remarks, I emphasized the need for the President to establish a Steering Committee.  It is essential that membership includes officials with expertise in technology, records and information management, and officials who can drive reform and change existing policies.  Cultural bias in favor of secrecy is perhaps the largest impediment to true reform across Government, a sentiment echoed by fellow panelists and attendees at events throughout the week.  Only through strong leadership will attitudes and opinions about secrecy and openness change.

At the conclusion of Sunshine Week, we reaffirm our commitment to an Open Government.  We invite you to continue the discussion about open government and freedom of information by commenting on our recommendations on our blog.


Sunshine Week is an annual initiative, which coincides with national Freedom of Information Day and James Madison’s birthday (March 16), designed to raise awareness of the importance of citizen access to Government records.

As we commemorate Sunshine Week, we reaffirm the principle of an Open Government.  The Public Interest Declassification Board believes that our democratic principles require an appropriate balance between public access and limited secrecy.  In November, we issued our report to the President on the need to transform the current security classification system.  Our report provided fourteen core recommendations on how best to modernize classification and declassification to meet the needs of all users in the digital age, including both our citizens and those entrusted to keep us safe.

We believe the current classification and declassification systems are outdated and incapable of dealing adequately with the large volumes of classified information generated in an era of digital communications and information systems.  The Government’s management of classified information must change to match the realities and demands of the 21st century.  A transformed classification system must be able to better manage the exponential growth of electronic records agencies are creating across Government.

Currently, classification and declassification policies remain mired in a Cold War culture of caution and risk avoidance and these outdated policies do not facilitate rapid and agile information sharing required to fully sup­port today’s national security mission.  The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission.  The system is compromised by over-classification and, not coincidentally, by increasing instances of unau­thorized disclosures.  This undermines the credibility of the classification system, blurs the focus on what truly requires protection, and fails to serve the public interest.  Put simply, the current system is outmoded and unsustainable; transformation is not simply advisable but imperative.

Declassification performs a service crucial to open government, informing citizens and promoting responsible dialogue between the public and Government.  There are also significant policy benefits from declassification that can aid national security decisions and diplomacy.  It is a valuable information sharing tool, particularly when information holders must work with stakeholders outside the intelligence and defense communities.  Information access may be the newest and most important policy tool of the modern era; nonetheless, often declassification review is perceived by agen­cies as an historical exercise with very limited relevance to today’s national security mission.  As a result, declassifica­tion is a significantly under-resourced and under-appreci­ated function.

Democratic values are very much part of national security.  The new realities of the digital age require agencies modernize information management and declassification practices.  Our first recommendation – that the President appoint a high level steering committee to review our recommendations – is an important first step.  Appointees must recognize that the existing system is collapsing and is unable to handle both the volume of information being generated and support the needs of users.  Transforming the system will undoubtedly be difficult as new policies are needed to overcome sixty years of Cold War culture and think anew about how best to protect our nation’s security in the Information Age.  We invite you to continue the discussion about open government and freedom of information by commenting on our recommendations on our blog.


Please join the chair of the PIDB, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, for a discussion about Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.  Ambassador Soderberg will discuss the PIDB report and the Board’s future work at a forum hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice on Thursday, March 14, 2013 from 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1779 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036).  The panel will be moderated by Steven Aftergood, Director, Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists.  Bob Litt, General Counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, J. William Leonard, Former Director (2002-2007), Information Security Oversight Office and Elizabeth Goitein, Co-Director, Liberty and National Security Program, Brennan Center for Justice will also be panelists discussing the future of classification reform and the broader implications for our national security system.

Lunch will be served.  Space is limited.  Please see for more information and to reserve your seat.

Thank you!

by on December 7, 2012


Photographs courtesy of the National Archives


On behalf of the Board, I want to thank all those who came to our public meeting yesterday at the National Archives.  We delivered our Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System last week and released it on our website yesterday.  I also wish to thank David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, for his hospitality and kind words yesterday – and also thank him for his continued support as we developed our recommendations.

Thank you to all who commented publicly at the event.  And thank you to all who provided input as we drafted the report.  We are especially appreciative for the advice and comments we received as we developed our recommendations for this report.  We received comments from the public, from civil society and transparency groups, from industry and technologists, and from classifiers, declassifiers, and leaders at Federal agencies and departments.

We want to continue our discussion with you by inviting you to continue making comments on our Transforming Classification blog.  Tell us what you think about the specific recommendations in the report.  We are also interested in your ideas of what next steps you think we should take as a Board, either in helping to implement the recommendations, or in new projects we should seek as develop a work plan for the future.

Again, I want to reiterate our appreciation in your interest in this most important topic and we look forward to reading your comments.  Please continue to follow the Board and our activities through our website and blog.



Photo courtesy of the National Archives


Today, the Public Interest Declassification Board released online its recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System.  It recommends fundamental changes that ensure the classification system will function fully to protect our nation’s security and to allow for democratic discourse in the 21st century.  The full report can be found at

We concluded that new policies for classifying and declassifying information are required.  The classification system has not kept pace with our information age and no longer supports users as it should.  The secrecy system should be streamlined and better aligned with safeguarding practices and less information should be classified overall.  Overall, there needs to be a better balance between what is classified and what is available to the American public.

Technology is at the core of our recommendations for a needed transformation of the declassification system.  Current page-by-page review processes are unsustainable in an era of gigabytes and yottabytes.  New and existing technologies must be integrated into new processes that allow greater information storage, retrieval, and sharing.  We must incorporate technology into an automated declassification process.

Our study involved the participation of stakeholders across Government, the private sector and civil society groups – thank you all for your comments and ideas.  Please continue to follow the Board’s activities as we share our recommendations with our stakeholders and support this most important transformation area fundamental to transparency and open government initiatives.

Photographs courtesy of the National Archives


The classification system was created seventy years ago in an era of paper and later copier paper.  Secret information was meant to be shared sparingly and disseminated to only those few Federal Government officials with a “need to know.”  With the end of the Cold War, the classification system has not evolved to counter new national security threats.  As the information age changed rapidly from paper to an electronic era, the classification system is unable to keep up with the dramatic changes in information creation.  Filing cabinets full of paper have been replaced by gigabytes, yottabytes, and zettabytes of information created and stored within virtual systems.  Managing this unimaginable volume of data requires entirely new policies unencumbered by a Cold War and paper-based mindset.

Classification and declassification are not keeping pace with the myriad of challenges facing the system: digital information creation, access for cleared persons, existing backlogs of paper holdings awaiting declassification review, long-term storage requirements, or the rights of a democratic society to as much information as possible about its Government.  Agencies still review records for declassification line-by-line and page-by-page.  This process is unsustainable and will not work when dealing with petabytes and gigabytes of information.

Available technologies are rarely used to meet current needs; neither are agencies preparing to use these technologies to handle the enormous volume of digital records.  As a result, the Government is currently unable to preserve or provide access to a great many important records.  Agencies should collaborate on policy, share technologies, pilot tests, promote best practices and develop common standards.

That is why we believe the best way to promote inter-agency collaboration, integrate technology, and reform classification processes is for the President to appoint a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee and hold them accountable for developing new methods to modernize classification and declassification. The Steering Committee would be responsible for managing the implementation of reforms required to transform current classification and declassification guidance and practice.

Part of this modernization effort will require pilot projects to test new and existing technologies that can support new policies that allow for efficient and effective classification and declassification.   These pilot projects should begin at the National Declassification Center and would investigate methods for automating and streamlining declassification, away from resource-intensive and inefficient page-by-page reviews.  Later, pilot projects should explore how technology could be used to combat over-classification and improve classification.

The ultimate goal of the pilot projects is to discover, develop, and deploy technology that will:

  • Automate and streamline declassification and classification processes, and ensure integration with electronic records management systems.
  • Provide tools for preservation, search, storage, scalability, review for access, and security application.
  • Address cyber security concerns, especially when integrating open source information into classified systems.
  • Standardize metadata generation and tagging, creating a government-wide metadata registry, drawing on lessons learned from the intelligence community.
  • Accommodate complex volumes of data (e.g. email, non-structured data, and video teleconferencing information).
  • Advance government-wide information management practices by supporting the President’s Memorandum on Managing Government Records.

Policymakers have the opportunity to transform the classification and declassification system to one that meets the needs of today’s digital information age.  The use of technology will be critical to the modernization of the system.


Documents courtesy of the National Archives  and the photograph is courtesy of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.


It is time to allow certain types of historical nuclear information to be reviewed for declassification and public access.  In the aftermath of World War II, the Government recognized the need to keep nuclear weapons information tightly controlled.  Over time, the Government realized that there were two broad categories of nuclear weapons related information and their dissemination controls were quite different.  Policy makers and Defense Department personnel needed to have operational and policy information related to the military utilization of nuclear weapons – but there was no need to give them access to critical and technical design information on how to build a nuclear weapon.  The Government created special access controls and separate classification systems for these two types on information – “Restricted Data” or “RD” pertained to information that could be used to build atomic bombs, while “Formerly Restricted Data” or “FRD” concerned policy and military use.  These classification systems were outside the Executive orders that governed all other classified national security information.[1]

Historical FRD information is of high interest to Cold War and nuclear policy historians.  It includes storage locations, stockpile information and policy discussions of what types of bombs to build, how big to make them, and where to put them, including in foreign countries as part of our military and deterrence strategy during the Cold War.  The declassification of this information AFTER A CAREFUL REVIEW would allow greater understanding of the role nuclear weapons played in our national defense and allow for analysis on their successes and shortcomings.

Yet, declassification review of this information is extremely difficult and complex. Requests for this information are routinely denied, and it is automatically excluded from declassification review under EO 13526. There is no systematic effort to allow this type of information to be considered for declassification, even though much of it is obsolete and no longer has any military or political SENSITIVITY.   Requests for this information are routinely denied WITHOUT ANY SERIOUS REVIEW OF WHETHER THE INFORMATION NEEDS TO REMAIN OUT OF THE PUBLIC’S ACCESS.  The public does not understand this arcane policy, especially when so much historical nuclear policy information is ALREADY in the public domain, perhaps suggesting that the policy is even confusing to those using the system. To be sure, certain of this information should retain the protection of its FRD classification if OUR NATIONAL SECURITY REQUIRES IT.  The Public Interest Declassification Board recommends that the classification status of historical FRD information be re-examined.  A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of this information that balances the concerns of agencies to protect what is needed, while serving the public interest by declassifying more.  There are high costs with associated with maintaining separate and competing classification systems.  There is confusion among agencies WHICH are asked to interpret two sets of policies, guidance, and procedures.  While the Department of Energy (DOE) has sole ownership of RD information, FRD information is jointly owned by DOE and the Defense Department and they are responsible for administering and regulating access to FRD.  But existing procedures and processes have had little effect in declassifying obsolete historical nuclear policy information.  IT IS TIME TO ADDRESS THIS COMPLEX ISSUE.

[1] Restricted Data (RD) information is defined by the Atomic Energy Act as information concerning the design, manufacture, or utilization of atomic weapons; the production of special nuclear material; and the use of special nuclear material to generate electricity.  FRD information primarily concerns the military utilization of nuclear weapons, including storage locations and stockpile information.  As designated by the Department of Energy under 10 CFR 1045, FRD information is classified information that has been removed from the Restricted Data category after the Departments of Energy and Defense jointly determine that it relates primarily to the military utilization of atomic weapons and can be adequately safeguarded in a manner similar to national security information.


Photo courtesy of the National Reconnaissance Office


Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information” and its two predecessors established specific, time-based declassification requirements for all national security agencies.   Despite these identical mandates, a Government-wide approach to declassification remains elusive.  Separate agency declassification programs evolved into a segmented declassification system where each agency reviewed its information and attempted to identify any classified information created by other agencies.  Agencies are required to perform the same tasks, such as completing automatic, systematic, and mandatory declassification reviews, yet their design and implementation of these requirements are disintegrated and lack interoperability, resulting in inefficient inter-agency coordination..  The declassification system has become increasingly inefficient and complex.  Accordingly, the public has become increasingly frustrated and confused by what it encounters when trying to navigate the labyrinth of agency programs.

Declassification performs a service crucial to democratic society, informing citizens and promoting responsible dialogue between the public and Government.  There are significant policy benefits from declassification that can aid national security decisions and diplomacy.  Declassification is a valuable information sharing tool, particularly when information holders must partner with stakeholders outside the intelligence and defense communities.  Information may be the newest and most important policy tool of the modern era, with declassification during operations offering a strategic advantage.  Public release not only makes policymakers accountable for their decisions and actions; it also affords agencies the opportunity to correct misinformation in the public domain and bolster their position in current debates.

One of the main recommendations found in the Board’s 2008 Report to the President on Improving Declassification included the recommendation of creating a center dedicated to declassification.  The center would focus not only on processing the huge paper backlog of records at the National Archives, but would also work to improve the declassification system across government to make it more efficient and effective for users.  The result of this recommendation was the establishment of the National Declassification Center, which has accomplished a great deal in tackling the immense 366 million page backlog of records.  However, many documents still await declassification review.  The NDC’s efforts are often stymied by the needlessly redundant and burdensome referral process, as well as the refusal by agencies to appropriately manage risk.

For these reasons, the Board recommends the President bolster the authority and capacity of the National Declassification Center with specific measures to advance a government-wide declassification strategy.

Specifically, Executive Order 13526 should be amended to eliminate the additional three years now permitted for review of multiple agency equities in all archival records (including those stored outside the NDC).   The requirement of agencies to share declassification guidance with other classifying agencies and the NDC should be strengthened.  Retention of agency declassification authority should be contingent upon sharing agency guidance.  The President should direct Agencies to consult the NDC before prioritizing their records for declassification and transfer to the National Archives.  The Interagency National Declassification Center Advisory Panel (NAP) should have representation from the public, including representation from the Government Openness advocacy community.  An inter-agency effort to develop new declassification review processes should be coordinated by the NDC and be based on a risk management approach.

Without dramatic improvement in the declassification process, the rate at which classified records are being created will drive an exponential growth in the archival backlog of classified records awaiting declassification, and public access to the nation’s history will deteriorate further.  It is am imperative that the NDC continue its leading role in working with agencies and the public to collaboratively look for new technological solutions, rooted in updated policies and practices, that tackle the growing volumes of information, particularly digital information, that await declassification review.


Photograph courtesy of the National Archives


“It is time to reexamine the long-standing tension between secrecy and openness, and develop a new way of thinking about government secrecy as we move into the next century.” -Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997, Senate Document 105-2, Public Law 236.


Document Courtesy of the National Security Agency


After extensive research and discussions with stakeholders in and outside Government, the Board has concluded that the current classification system is too antiquated to fully support today’s national security mission. The system keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long. Its practices are overly complex, and serve to obstruct desirable information sharing inside of government and with the public. There are many explanations for over-classification: much classification occurs essentially automatically; criteria and agency guidance have not kept pace with the information explosion; and despite numerous Presidential orders to refrain from unwarranted classification, a culture persists that defaults to the avoidance of risk rather than its proper management.

To partially address the concerns of excessive classification, we recommend that classification be simplified and rationalized by placing national security information in only two categories. This would allow proper alignment with the actual two-tiered practices existing throughout most of government for information protection security clearances, physical safeguarding, and information system accreditation.

Top Secret would remain the Higher-Level category, retaining its current, high level of protection. All other classified information would be categorized at a Lower-Level, which would follow standards for a lower level of protection. Both categories would include compartmented and special access information, as they do today.

Newly established criteria for classifying information in the two tiers would identify the needed levels of protection against disclosure of the information. Identifiable risk should be the basis for determining if a level of protection is needed and if classification is warranted and, if so, at what level and duration.

The difficulty of applying the current concept of presumed “damage” during derivative classification would be replaced by a more concrete application of the level of protection necessary for sharing and protecting. This change in guidance would reflect how classification is actually practiced by derivative classifiers – deciding how much protection is needed based on the sensitivity of the information to both protect and share appropriately.

We understand that the adoption of a two-tiered model will pose greater challenges for those agencies whose internal practices are more dependent upon current distinctions between Secret and Confidential. We are not advocating for simply eliminating the Confidential category of classification, thereby exacerbating problems of over-classification in the system. Rather, we believe the adoption of a two-tiered model would align the classification system to what is actually occurring in practice throughout Government. Confidential information is safeguarded on Secret-level systems. The Lower-level of classification in the two-tiers will be defined by the appropriate levels of protection needed to ensure the classified information may be secured and shared appropriately. Guidance must be updated and longstanding practices of rote classification in the current system must be redesigned to make classifiers re-think deep-rooted cultural biases that favor classification and instead choose not to classify in the first instance unless a risk assessment proves protection is needed.



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