The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an advisory committee established by Congress to promote the fullest possible public access to records of significant national security decisions and activities, publically released its Recommendations to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System last week. The report was created in response to Executive Order 13526 on Classified National Security Information, which called for assistance in identifying potential solutions for classification and declassification challenges in the digital age and producing a vision for a new system. On Wednesday, I attended the PIDB’s public meeting at the National Archives and Record Administration, where Board Chair Nancy Soderberg and members Martin Faga, William Leary, Elizabeth Parker, David Skaggs, William O. Studeman, and Sanford Ungar presented their recommendations and answered questions from the public.
The Board’s report calls for a dramatic overhaul of current security classification standards and practices and recommends 14 steps to simplify and modernize the current system. Chief among them is the creation of a White House-led steering committee to drive reform. With agencies unlikely to change entrenched classification practices at their own discretion, future progress in secrecy reform will require intervention and direction from the White House. Further, the current three-tiered classification system, in place since 1953, requires agencies to first decide if records need to be classified, and then at which of three levels— confidential, secret or top secret. Calling that process outdated, the Board says that it is likely impossible for agency records managers to review, analyze and classify or declassify such a large quantity of documents under the current system. The Board recommends a two-tiered process and calls for strengthening the National Declassification Center to giving federal employees “safe harbor” protection if they adhere to a rigorous risk management process in how they perform their classification duties.
In all, the report is predicated on the view that far too much information is classified. With much discussion of the “petabytes of data” created and classified in the current system, the PIDB calls for more immediate declassification of information that’s sensitive for only a short time. It says operational or date-specific classified information should be automatically declassified without any additional review when the operation or date passes, and calls for revisiting the Formerly Restricted Data classification to speed up its access to researchers –and develop good will in public relations.
The new report is the first published PIDB report since January 2008 and follows nearly three years of research and consultation with federal agencies and outreach to the public. AALL commends the PIDB on this important step forward and encourages the White House to commit to undertaking the culture change necessary to combat secrecy and overclassification.