PIDB Recommendations Included in Bi-Partisan Legislation Designed to Transform Classification

Today, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced new legislation, the “Preserving American Access to Information Act,” aimed at reforming the security classification system.  The bipartisan bill focuses on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the system while increasing transparency for users of the system and the public.  In introducing the bill, Senator Shaheen said “Right now we are classifying too much information and keeping it for too long at the expense of taxpayers and transparency.”  Senator Risch added that “the outdated classification system being used by our government is long overdue for reform.” 

The PIDB is pleased that its 2012 study and subsequent Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System served to highlight the challenges facing the sustainability of the system.  The bill noted the imperative for reforming the system so that it is able to adequately deal with the ever-increasing volumes of digital data that the Government creates.  Several of the Board’s recommendations are included in the new legislation, including reforms to the operations of the National Declassification Center.  The legislation also requires agencies to report to Congress on the feasibility for condensing the classification system to only two levels, for using “Short-term” classification designations for tactical and purely operational matters, and for removing “Formerly Restricted Data” restrictions on obsolete nuclear weapons information.  We feel that these measures, if enacted and implemented, will reduce over-classification, improve declassification practices across Government, and allow for greater public access to Government records.

Senator Risch said “This bill is a reasonable first step towards a more transparent and effective classification system for our country.”  We thank Senator Shaheen and Senator Risch for their interest in our report and for introducing the “Preserving American Access to Information Act.”  More information about the bill can be found at:

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PIDB Congratulates NATO for Declassifying Cold War historical retrospectives of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

The Public Interest Declassification Board congratulates the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its member nations for its work in declassifying the Cold War historical retrospectives of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and posting them on its website.  The histories detail the origins of SHAPE and document its activities and decisions as a consolidated command structure opposing the Communist alliance forming during the Cold War.  Under the orders of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951, historians in SHAPE began to research and draft these classified histories, drawing on the wide range of Top Secret and Secret documents that had been collected and preserved by the SHAPE Historical Office and SHAPE Central Records Office.

These histories also shed important new light on the origins, development, and implementation of NATO’s nuclear weapons policies.  While NATO has taken important steps to declassify its nuclear weapons history, the U.S. effort lags behind.  U.S. nuclear weapons information, including storage locations, is classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) by the Atomic Energy Act.  Under the 1954 Act and its implementing regulations, this information is not subject to automatic declassification and, once classified as FRD, remains classified until such time as the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD) agree to declassify the information.  Although the Cold War ended over a decade ago, DoD and DOE have done little to declassify information on our nuclear weapons history and its role in winning the Cold War.  It is our hope that the Departments of Energy and Defense can learn from NATO’s efforts.

We believe the cooperation and excellent work undertaken by the member nations support our recommendation to the President in our Transforming the Security Classification System report that the Departments of Defense and Energy take steps necessary to allow for the systematic declassification review of obsolete FRD information that would provide citizens and historians new perspective on US Cold War policies.  We believe the declassification of the SHAPE histories can serve as a model for achieving this goal.

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Support for the PIDB’s Recommendations Continues to Grow

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.

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What We Heard and Learned during Sunshine Week

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.


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Public Interest Declassification Board Commemorates James Madison’s Birthday and Sunshine Week

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.


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PIDB Chair to Discuss Transforming the Security Classification System at Secrecy Event Hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice

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.

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Thank you!

Public Interest Declassification Board Meeting.  David Ferriero speaking. Public Interest Declassification Board Meeting. Public Interest Declassification Board Public Meeting

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.

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NEW ANNOUNCEMENT: The Public Interest Declassification Board Publicly Releases its Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System


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.

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Recommendation 14: Using Technology to Modernize Classification and Declassification

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.

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Recommendation 7: Implementing a Process for the Systematic Declassification Review of Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) Information


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.

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