The Public Interest Declassification Board commemorates James Madison’s birthday and Sunshine Week

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

We reaffirm the principle that an Open Government is essential in our democracy.  An informed citizenry, actively participating in debating and discussing the actions of its government leaders, is only possible when they have all necessary access to government information.  In December, we issued our supplemental report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification, as an aid to government policymakers and practitioners.  This report provided six recommendations to support improved declassification policies.  The recommendations focused on prioritizing declassification to those records that are most sought-after by the public and those records that are historically significant and of interest to policy makers, citizens, historians and researchers.

We continue to advocate for new policies to implement an improved declassification system.  These new policies are necessary as government information generation increases.  We believe that technological solutions offer the only answer to the long-term challenge of managing this exponential growth of information across government.  There remains an ever-increasing amount of government records and digital information inaccessible to the public.  Prioritization will set-up this information for a public access review, but providing real access will require automated workflow tools, advanced search and retrieval capabilities, and content understanding technologies if we want to seriously amend the system and increase declassification to an acceptable level.

In 2015, the PIDB intends to focus on learning more about these technologies and how they can be used to increase and improve declassification.  The PIDB will continue advocating for their testing and implementation at the National Declassification Center and at agencies.  We have long-supported the idea that modernization requires the adoption of these technologies.  We look forward to working with the Security Classification Reform Committee, agencies and the public to advance our mutual goal of reforming our policies and practices for today’s digital age.



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The President Announces His Intention to Appoint Laura A. DeBonis and Solomon B. Watson IV to the PIDB

Yesterday, the President announced his intention to appoint Laura A. DeBonis and Solomon B. Watson IV to each serve three-year terms as members of the Public Interest Declassification Board.  You can find a link to the White House press release announcing the appointments here.  The members of the PIDB look forward to working with Ms. DeBonis and Mr. Watson as they continue their efforts to improve declassification and modernize the classification system.

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William Leary To Be Reappointed to the PIDB

President Obama announced yesterday afternoon his intention to nominate William Leary to serve a second three-year term on the PIDB.  The members are pleased to learn of his reappointment and we are looking forward to his continued help in advocating for transforming the national security classification system.  Before his retirement from Government service as the Senior Director for Records Access and Management at the National Security Council, Bill was instrumental in assisting us as we developed recommendations to improve declassification.  After his retirement, the President nominated him to serve as a member of the PIDB.  Bill helped us fulfill the President’s request that we study the classification system and make recommendations on its modernization.  Most recently, Bill led our effort to highlight and make additional reforms to the way our Government declassifies information.  This supplemental report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification, recognizes the need for the Government to target its declassification efforts on information of most interest to the public.

Bill is a key member of our Board and we look forward to working with him as he begins his second term.  Congratulations Bill!

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NEW ANNOUNCEMENT: The PIDB Releases its Supplemental Report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification

Today, the Public Interest Declassification Board released online its latest report recommending additional changes to transform the security classification system.  This Supplemental Report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification, focuses on topic-based declassification prioritization.  In it, the PIDB makes the case for the government to adopt a centralized approach to topic-based prioritization and recommends specific policy and process changes aimed at improving access to historically significant records most sought-after by the public.

With input from the public, agency classifiers, declassifiers and historians, the recommendations found in this supplemental report are meant to assist the Records Access and Information Security Interagency Policy Committee/Classification Reform Committee (RAIS IPC/CRC) in its work of evaluating the PIDB’s 2012 Report recommendations and developing a government-wide approach to transforming classification.

We concluded that automatic declassification should no longer be the sole policy driving declassification programming across government. We found that this policy no longer supports the President’s policies from Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” as intended.  In practice, automatic declassification has fueled a risk-averse process limiting quality declassification review, brought about expensive re-reviews, and added unnecessary costs to an overburdened system.  As the volume of information continues to increase exponentially in the digital era, topic-based prioritization would ensure declassification review of records of the greatest potential for use by the public, historians, public policy professionals and the national security community itself.  It also would more closely align with electronic information management practices designed to ensure discovery and access to relevant information.

We provide six recommendations in support of topic-based prioritization by giving attention to records of greatest public interest.  They are:

  1. Topic-based declassification should be the normal process rather than the exception.
  2. The National Declassification Center (NDC), in consultation with the public and with agencies, should design and implement a process to solicit, evaluate and prioritize standard topics for declassification government-wide.
  3. End pass/fail determinations and identify necessary redactions for topic-based reviews.
  4. The government should require agencies to develop and use new technologies to assist and improve declassification review.
  5. Agencies and the NDC must improve risk management practices.
  6. Revisions to the current Executive Order are needed to lessen the burden of automatic declassification on agencies in support of topic-based declassification review.

Our Supplemental Report details the reasons our recommendations and makes the case for these needed changes.  The report also includes a list of topics solicited from the stakeholders inside and outside government.  This list should provide a suitable starting point for government policymakers to begin designing and implementing a prioritization process.  We recognize that change will be difficult, but know the consequences of inaction will be far more negative than will steps made in the overall effort of transformation.

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Retirement of Miriam Nisbet, Director of OGIS

On behalf of the members of the Public Interest Declassification Board, I would like to congratulate Miriam Nisbet on the eve of her retirement from Federal  service.  Throughout her Federal career, she served with distinction as a tireless advocate for transparency and access to government records.  We first met Ms. Nisbet in her role as the first Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).  We were impressed with her vision of OGIS as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ombudsman to provide mediation services to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Executive branch agencies.  Those familiar with open government and transparency advocacy regard Ms. Nisbet as a trusted advocate for the proper administration of FOIA, as Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero noted in his announcement Ms. Nisbet’s retirement.

I want to thank Ms. Nisbet personally for her support of our work to develop recommendations to modernize and transform the security classification system.  Many similar challenges exist that impede the declassification process and the administration of the FOIA at agencies, and we are grateful to Ms. Nisbet and the staff at OGIS for recognizing that limiting secrecy to the minimum necessary for the national security assists both the agencies and the public in their efforts to access and manage government information.

The members join me in thanking her for her wise counsel and her work to increase transparency and access to government records.  We wish her all the best in her retirement.

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Farewell to PIDB Member Martin Faga

MartinFagaPodiumFaga with Bush 41NRO Memorandum for ReleaseLetter Declassifying the NRO

On behalf of the members of the Public Interest Declassification Board, I would like to thank our colleague, Martin Faga, for his dedicated service as he concludes his third term as a member on the PIDB.  Marty has made substantial contributions while on the PIDB, including service as the Acting Chair.  He was appointed by President George W. Bush as an inaugural member of the PIDB and was present at its first meeting on Saturday, February 25, 2006.  Marty’s advocacy for modernizing the security classification system is long-standing, from his service as Director of the National Reconnaissance Office to his service as a member of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Secrecy.  As a member of the PIDB, he helped craft many of our recommendations, including simplifying the classification system and adopting a risk-based standard on decisions to classify information or not.  He advocated for modernization as a necessity to improve government effectiveness and as essential to build trust with our citizens and aid democratic discourse.

Marty played a critical role in efforts to expand our outreach to stakeholders and involve the public and government as we crafted and revised our recommendations to the President.  He was instrumental in writing both of the PIDB’s Reports to the President, Improving Declassification in December 2007 and Transforming the Security Classification System in November 2012.  Marty possesses a unique understanding of how secrecy affects the functioning of our government and its ability to provide timely information to others in government as well as the public, especially concerning the operation of the intelligence community and its missions critical to our nation’s security interests.  He has been a vocal advocate for the need to modernize access policies and integrate technological solutions in order to reform the security classification system for the digital era.  We have valued and benefited from Marty’s expertise and vast experience and hope he will continue to contribute to the PIDB in his new emeriti status.  On behalf of the PIDB, I thank you, Marty, for your commitment, thoughtfulness, and friendship during your service to the PIDB.  We will greatly miss you and we wish you the best both personally and professionally.

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Declassification in Full of the 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing

The PIDB congratulates the Department of Energy’s Office of Classification Management for declassifying the complete 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Transcript.  President Obama’s Second Open Government National Action Plan tasked Government agencies, including the Department of Energy, to systematically review and declassify historical data on nuclear activities.  The PIDB is pleased to see the Department of Energy actively working to declassify historical nuclear information and supporting the goals in the National Action Plan. According to the DOE’s OpenNet website, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held a four-week, closed-door hearing in April and May of 1954 to determine the security clearance status of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.  The AEC previously released a redacted form of the original transcript, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board, in 1954.  The Department of Energy has re-reviewed the nineteen volumes of transcripts and has released them in their entirety without any redactions.  For the first time, the public and historians can read and use these full transcripts and gain new insight into an aspect of U.S. Cold War and nuclear weapons policy history.   The PIDB also commends the Department of Energy for providing the public with specific information on how to view the newly declassified information and identify the previously redacted/segregated “Classified Testimony.”  This additional effort of creating a cross-reference volume entitled, “Record of Deletions” of the declassified portions will aid researchers in their understanding of the records, an important step in the support of open government and transparency.

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PIDB Visits Presidential Libraries and the Center for Content Understanding

On September 11-12, 2014, the PIDB traveled to College Station and Austin, Texas to see first-hand how the Presidential Libraries are providing access to their important holdings.  The PIDB would like to thank the Directors and staff at the George. H. W. Bush and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Libraries for hosting us.  We appreciated their candid comments on how these historically significant records can be better prioritized for declassification review.  The PIDB believes the records in the Presidential Libraries are among our nation’s most valuable.  We share and support the National Archives’ commitment to ensuring long-term access to these important and sought-after records.  Our aim is to bring greater awareness to the challenges facing declassification programs at these Libraries so that Presidential records, including electronic records, may receive priority for declassification and public access.

In addition to visiting these two Presidential Libraries, the PIDB met with research scientists from the Center for Content Understanding (CCU) at the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at the University of Texas at Austin.  The research scientists at the CCU are supporting a joint effort of the National Archives and the Central Intelligence Agency to develop and use technology to identify specific information in Reagan administration electronic records for declassification.  The pilot project calls for testing technological capabilities performing rules-based analysis to  aid and automate classification and declassification decision-making.  This effort supports a commitment the President made in his Second Open Government National Action Plan, adopted from the PIDB’s recommendation in our 2012 Report on Transforming the Security Classification System.  The PIDB extends its appreciation and gratitude to the professionals at the CCU and ARL for hosting our visit and for providing a comprehensive briefing on this successful pilot project.  The PIDB believes the government should continue efforts to support this important work.  It offers a way for the Record Access Information Security Interagency Policy Committee / Classification Reform Committee to begin analysis of how technology will transform the classification system and make declassification more efficient and effective.  Implementing technological tools, like the ones tested at the CCU, are imperative – without it, the government will not be able to keep pace with the volume of records requiring declassification review.

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Declassification of the Manhattan District History at the Department of Energy

On August 21, 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) posted to its OpenNet system the multi-volume history of the Manhattan Project, titled The Manhattan District History.  Commissioned in 1944 by General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineer District, the thirty-six volume history was “intended to describe, in simple terms, easily understood by the average reader, just what the Manhattan District did, and how, when, and where” according to general editor Gavin Hadden, a longtime civil employee of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The volumes detail the Manhattan Project’s activities and achievements in research, design, construction, operation, and administration, as well as contain extensive annotations, statistical tables, charts, engineering drawings, maps, photographs, and derailed indices.

The PIDB congratulates the Office of Classification, the Office of History and Heritage Resources, and the DOE’s Office of Science and Technical information for completing all declassification reviews on these important histories.  In particular, we are gratified that the DOE prioritized these histories for declassification.   This effort illustrates the government’s ability to declassify no-longer-sensitive information related to our nation’s nuclear history, a recommendation made by the PIDB’s 2012 Report, Transforming the Security Classification System, and adopted in the President’s Second Open Government National Action Plan.  The PIDB is also pleased that these records received a line-by-line declassification review, rather than being subjected to simple pass/fail determinations.  We will continue to follow and give encouragement to agencies as they work to implement the President’s Plan.

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The President Signs Legislation to Extend the PIDB to December 31, 2018

On July 7, 2014, the President signed into law S. 1681, “Fiscal 2014 Intelligence Authorization.”  The Senate passed the bill on June 11, 2014 and the House of Representatives passed it by voice vote on June 24, 2014.  The legislation included a section that amended Section 710(b) of the Public Interest Declassification Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-567; 50 U.S.C. 3161 note) by striking “2014.” and inserting “2018.”  This extension will allow our Members to continue our work advocating for reform of the classification system.  We believe modernization is essential to foster more effective national security policies and practices and improve democratic discourse.

We thank the Congress for including this language in the legislation and the President for signing it.  We would also like to thank Representative Mike Rogers who first introduced H.R. 4681, “Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015,” Senators Jeanne Shaheen and James Risch and Representative Darrell Issa and their staff members for their support of the PIDB’s work and for their efforts to see the PIDB reauthorized.

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