PUBLIC MEETING TODAY: New PIDB White Paper, “The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification”

A public meeting of the PIDB will be held today, June 23, 2016 from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. at the National Archives Building.  The members will discuss the white paper below:

“The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification”
A White Paper of the Public Interest Declassification Board
June 2016

Introduction to the PIDB Declassification Technology Working Group

At the direction of the President, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) continues to investigate technologies and related policy solutions to transform the security classification system to one capable of functioning more effectively in an increasingly complex information age. [1]  Core to our democratic ideals is the ability for the public to access its government’s records.  The responsibility lies with senior government leaders to develop sound policies and implement technological capabilities that will ensure long-term preservation and accessibility to the nation’s historical records.  Nearly all users of the security classification system agree that it is no longer able to handle the current volume and forms of information, especially given the exponential growth of digital information that is only exacerbating the many challenges facing the system.  As the PIDB has previously noted in all of our reports, we reaffirm that our most important recommendation for developing and ensuring such a system is the adoption of a government-wide technology investment strategy for the management of classified information.  

In support of this recommendation and those commitments found in the President’s Open Government National Action Plans, the PIDB began an in-depth study of agency declassification technology initiatives last year.  In May 2015, we established an informal Declassification Technology Working Group (Working Group) at the National Archives and asked for agency participation in a high-level questionnaire concerning agency preparedness for declassification in the digital age.  We sought support from agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs) when setting up the Working Group in order to highlight declassification technology development as a need for agencies.  We believe the support of agency CIOs is critical to modernizing declassification and making the management of classified information at agencies a priority in planning their information technology programs now and in the years ahead.

The Working Group has representation from technologists at 14 agencies and departments in the Executive Branch.  The PIDB hosted four Working Group meetings in the past year.  These meetings are an opportunity for agencies to share their successes, challenges, best practices, requirements and declassification program needs.  Agenda items covered at these meetings included agencies briefings on their efforts at declassification technology planning, discussions of best practices concerning the management of classified records (including email), the sharing of metadata standards and transfer guidance, and more.  We have received positive feedback from agencies about the usefulness of meeting in this informal Working Group environment; agency technologists are able to work collaboratively, share best practices and discuss new ideas with their inter-agency counterparts on these often overlooked technology challenges.

Now, at the one-year anniversary of the beginning of our Working Group exercise, we have collected some observations and lessons-learned to share from these meetings with the public.  Our goal is to reflect on the progress of the Working Group and plan next steps and potential areas in need of further study.

Finding the Baseline: Where Agencies Stand

Overall, agencies lack appropriate technological investment to support the activities of their declassification and related records management programs.  Most agencies do not possess basic workflow applications to assist human review of records, applications that are readily available in the commercial world.  While one or two agencies are exploring advanced content understanding and analytics as technical capabilities to assist review, the vast majority of agencies lack the most basic technological infrastructure to support simple automation or search technologies to assist in the management of records through the review process.

By policy design, declassification largely operates in an information environment twenty-five years in the past, making paper the dominant review format agencies must prioritize.   Solutions that can assist in managing the large volumes of paper found at agencies and the National Archives already exist in the commercial world.  But implementing these known solutions within government remains elusive and problematic.  Funding for declassification and records management in most agencies is minimal, at best.  What little funding is available supports outdated processes designed in the 1990s in response to the mandates afforded with the onset of automatic declassification.  Prior to the notion of automatic declassification, declassification review occurred ad hoc and inconsistently across agencies.  When adopted and implemented, these 1990s processes elevated declassification review to the program level.  They have served their intended purpose – to institutionalize declassification at agencies – and presently are largely outmoded for managing electronic records.  These 1990s processes will remain in place for the foreseeable future, barring resources for the development of new processes and the adoption of automated workflow tools.

In addition to the challenges of outdated paper-based processes, agencies also lack capabilities to manage the review of special media formats and legacy electronic records, including first generation born-digital records.  As prioritization of records for declassification review largely depends upon records’ age, the coming of “age” of electronic records review is now of serious consequence for agencies, with the added complication that no relief from paper records review appears to be in sight.  Common challenges exist among agencies in managing legacy electronic records, yet there is no serious effort underway to acknowledge or describe these challenges, let alone develop a universal approach or solution.

Other common problems exist concerning electronic records beyond the issue of exponential growth and volume in need of review.  Connectivity, integration and communication of systems that support declassification and records management within and between agencies is fragmented and sparse.  Agencies lack universal metadata requirements and standards for managing declassification.  Requirements and standards are of the utmost importance as declassification is increasingly dependent on the ability of agencies to refer their records to other agencies for equity review.  Agencies must adopt and implement common solutions to these challenges across government; progress of any one agency in building a technological framework to modernize its declassification program is dependent on its ability to interact and share information with its counterparts.

Sharing information among agencies also exposes cultural challenges found in the declassification world.  A common understanding and agreement for how agencies should mitigate risk does not exist.  Agency practices are intolerant of risk and the consequences of not striking a balance between openness and continued secrecy in declassification review are too high for the system to sustain indefinitely, both in resources and credibility.  Today’s information world, including the national security structure, is increasingly dependent on transparency and open source informational content.  Risk management and mitigation must be key elements of forethought in designing technical declassification capabilities, not an afterthought in response to disclosure events.

Next Steps: What Agencies Need

Technological modernization of declassification and its related functional counterpart, records management, will require leadership and resources.  Agencies require both simple workflow tools and advanced content processing, analytic tools and storage/access means. Agencies should integrate declassification reviewers and records managers, organizing for success, to share best practices, manage metadata and efficiently harvest all the capabilities of information age technologies for the benefit of all system users, including policymakers and historians.  Additionally, special media and first generation born-digital records demand serious consideration.  A government-wide investment strategy should consider and build upon those tools in use at agencies with more modernized declassification capabilities, such as the intelligence community.

A phased adoption of sophisticated content analytic solutions should occur, beginning with an increase in the number of pilots used to test these capabilities within declassification programs.  Capabilities, like those developed at the Center for Content Understanding at the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, should be implemented to a greater extent at agencies. [2]  For most agencies, there is an immediate need to implement automated workflow solutions and basic search capabilities, solutions that largely exist in the commercial world that are readily available for adoption.  Even while grappling with basic workflow challenges, agencies must also seriously invest in advanced content analytic tools.  The sustainability of the system is dependent on agencies exploring advanced content analytic solutions while also solving immediate workflow automation challenges.

Even more importantly, the long-term transformation of the declassification system will require leadership from the White House and a commitment to funding a government-wide technology investment strategy.  The PIDB will continue studying declassification technology investment at agencies with the recommendation that agencies receive the resources they need to make the records of our government accessible to future generations. Our desire is to support policymakers, while maintaining our principle responsibility of responding to the public interest in having an open and transparent government.  We believe the government will only be able to achieve this goal with the adoption of technological capabilities that will modernize the security classification system to function effectively in the current digital information environment.

[1] Memorandum   for   Implementation   of   the   Executive   Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” December 29, 2009, 75 FR 733, Document Number E9-31424.

[2] At the request of the CIA and the National Archives, the Center for Content Understanding at the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin piloted decision- support technology for records declassification review and release.  The pilots successfully yielded a Sensitive Content Identification and Marking (SCIM) tool that uses a combination of natural language processing, expert systems, machine learning and semantic knowledge representation to identify sensitive content in textual information found in classified email records.  The SCIM tool is the only tool of this level of sophistication being explored for the sole purpose of aiding decision-support in classification and declassification.

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ANNOUNCEMENT: New Presidential Appointees

Yesterday evening, the President announced his intention to appoint Trevor W. Morrison and James E. Baker to each serve three-year terms as members of the PIDB.  The President also named Mr. Morrison as the new Chairperson.  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 Mr. Morrison and Mr. Baker as they continue their study and work on transforming the security classification system.

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REMINDER: PIDB Public Meeting TOMORROW

The PIDB will hold a public meeting tomorrow, Thursday, June 23, 2016 at the National Archives Building from 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

There are still spaces available.  You may register through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/public-interest-declassification-board-meeting-tickets-25546280613

More information about the meeting can be found here.

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SAVE THE DATE: PIDB Public Meeting on June 23, 2016

Join us and REGISTER for the next public meeting of the PIDB!

When: Thursday, June 23, 2016 from 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Doors Open: 9:15 a.m.

Where: The Archivist’s Reception Room, Room 105, National Archives and Records Administration

Address: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC (Enter through the Pennsylvania Ave. Lobby)

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) will hold a public meeting to report on its work in developing recommendations to modernize the classification and declassification system.  Members will report on their ongoing investigation into how the use of technological applications will modernize declassification, making it more efficient and effective in the digital age.  Additionally, the PIDB has invited a representative from the White House to discuss the Administration’s policies and initiatives to increase government transparency.  At the PIDB’s last public meeting, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Alex MacGillivray, spoke of the need for Government to adopt the use of technologies in its work processes to improve access and use of Government information.

We will allot time for questions and comments from the public.


This meeting is open to the public. However, due to space limitations and access procedures, we require individuals planning to attend the meeting to register on Eventbrite.

Attendees must enter through the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Please note we require one form of Government-issued photo identification (e.g. driver’s license) to gain admittance. For questions about accessibility or to request accommodations, please contact the PIDB staff at 202-357-5342 or pidb@nara.gov. Two weeks advance notice will allow us to provide access.

Press may contact NARA’s Public Affairs Office at 202-357-5300.

Be sure to stay connected to the Board’s activities and look for more information about the Board on its website and its blog, Transforming Classification.  

Have questions about Public Meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board? Contact the Public Interest Declassification Board.

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Declassification Technology Update from the Center for Content Understanding (CCU)

Yesterday, PIDB member Sanford Ungar attended a briefing by Dr. Cheryl Martin entitled, Decision Support Technology for Records Declassification Review and Release. Dr. Martin’s briefing was jointly sponsored by the ODNI and CIA as part of the research supporting the Congressionally-Directed Action tasked by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to the Director of National Intelligence in Section 321 of the IAA for FY2015: Report on Declassification Process.

Dr. Martin’s briefing expanded on the findings she presented at the PIDB’s June 25, 2015 public meeting concerning declassification technology pilot projects conducted at the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin. As part of the President’s Second Open Government National Action Plan, the CIA and NARA teamed with Dr. Martin and the CCU to develop a Sensitive Content Identification and Marking (SCIM) tool to assist the declassification review of over 87,000 emails from the Reagan Administration.

After successfully demonstrating the capabilities of the SCIM tool, the CCU continues supporting the CIA in its efforts to develop and apply the technology to its declassification review processes. Dr. Martin’s briefing brought agency officials together to hear an in-depth description of the piloting efforts and to discuss as a community the potential next steps for developing the SCIM tool and expanding its application at agencies.

The PIDB has a history of making recommendations for improving technological capabilities in support of declassification. The work of the CCU will have significant implications on how agencies grapple with the challenges of performing declassification in an increasingly digital world. The new challenges brought on by the exponential growth of digital information require new solutions routed in technology and automation. Not only will technology support declassification decision making in the future, it likely will replace some components of the declassification process in its entirety. Developing these technologies requires new policies that favor an increase in automation and improved risk management across government. As importantly, agencies requires resources (i.e. funding) devoted to declassification modernization to ensuring the public has access to government information now and in the future.

The PIDB thanks Dr. Martin and the CCU, as well as the ODNI, CIA, NARA, and all the agencies who attended the briefing. The participation of agencies at this briefing and at the meetings of the PIDB’s Declassification Technology Working Group demonstrate the commitment the government shares to improve public access to its information in support of transparency and openness.

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The DPLAfest: Making Access Happen

On Friday, the PIDB participated in the Digital Public Libraries of America (DPLA) Festival.  As a non-profit organization, DPLA brings together America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them available to all users.  The festival is an annual series of workshops, presentations, and discussions that brings together librarians, archivists, and museum professionals, developers and technologists, publishers and authors, teachers and students to applaud DPLA’s milestones in the previous year.  This year, the DPLAfest was held on April 14 and 15, 2016, at three Washington, DC, institutions: the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution.  The festival agenda and presentations are available here

Mr. William Cira, Acting Executive Secretary of the PIDB, discussed the substantial impact of the PIDB’s recommendations on policy development in the Executive Office of the President and how those recommendations directly impact the joint mission of NARA and the DPLA: simply put, to make access happen.  Mr. Cira and Ms. Ellen Knight, Senior Analyst with the PIDB staff, shared information about the current study the PIDB is undertaking concerning technological modernization of the classification and declassification system for long-term sustainability.

The PIDB wishes to thank the DPLAfest organizers for the opportunity to share our work with a new and broader community of users interested in bringing technology to the information management field.  We look forward to next year’s DPLAfest and future opportunities to collaborate with DPLA supporters.

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It’s Always Sunny in Washington

The PIDB continues to hold to the principle of an Open Government recognizing that an informed citizenry strengthens our democracy. We realize that more work needs to be done on the important commitments articulated in the Third National Action Plan for Open Government, particularly streamlining the declassification process. Related to this initiative to limit secrecy to the minimum necessary is the commitment to modernize the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) across government.

Please join us on March 14, 2016, at National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to celebrate Sunshine Week 2016. The Office of Government Information Services will hold a series of lectures and panel discussions with experts in Open Government, technology and the FOIA process in NARA’s William G. McGowan Theater from 1:00 until 4:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public but you must register by March 11. Additionally, NARA will offer a live webcast of the event for those who are not in the DC area. Please register to attend here.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know. The American Society of News Editors launched Sunshine Week in 2005 to focus attention on the importance of open government. This year’s events will take place the week of March 13-19, 2016. Sunshine Week 2016 is particularly meaningful because this year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the FOIA.

The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, will open the event with introductory remarks to begin the afternoon’s events. A list of impressive speakers including Richard L. “Dick” Huff, Miriam Nisbet, Andrew Lih, Archon Fung, and other leading advocates for open government initiatives, will discuss recent changes to FOIA and the promise of technology (from both inside and outside of government) to improve transparency. Be sure to check out the updated agenda on the OGIS website.

We hope to see you at this important celebration of Open Government.

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PIDB Congratulates John W. Ficklin for his Years of Public Service

The Members of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) congratulate Mr. John W. Ficklin on his January 2016 retirement from government service, completing his forty-three year tenure at the White House as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Records and Access Management at the National Security Council. In his capacity as Senior Director, Mr. Ficklin was responsible for declassification of White House records as well as other information and records management duties. He remained a keen partner of the PIDB in its undertaking to promote public access to an accurate and thorough documentation of significant national security decisions and activities.

Mr. William Leary, Acting Chair of the PIDB and previous Senior Director for Records and Access Management, credits Mr. Ficklin, in 1984, with initially transforming the mainly paper-based White House records management infrastructure to a restructured electronic / digital system of information governance. Of his many accomplishments during his tenure, Mr. Flicklin has overseen the release of over 2,500 previously classified President Daily Briefs from the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. Ficklin chaired the Interagency Security Classification Panel (ISCAP), as well as supported the establishment of the National Declassification Center (NDC) and the processing of its 360 million page backlog of records.

More recently, Mr. Ficklin dedicated much of his efforts to the President’s transparency and open government initiatives, including the advancement of two key commitments in the Open Government National Action Plans, transforming the security classification system and streamlining declassification. He chaired the interagency Classification Reform Committee (CRC), a White House-led Steering Committee dedicated to advancing modernization efforts for classification and declassification. Among its many accomplishments was to initiate the successful piloting by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Archives of technological tools to automate decision-support in declassification review. The CRC continues to meet under the direction of Mr. John P. Fitzpatrick, former Director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). Mr. Fitzpatrick assumed Mr. Ficklin’s previous role as Senior Director for Records and Access Management at the NSC.

Mr. Ficklin’s distinguished career, as well as his family’s historic service at the White House, were the subjects of a moving article in last Sunday’s Washington Post. You can read the article here.

The PIDB thanks Mr. Ficklin for his service to the country and its citizens. The members are grateful for the many years of cooperation they have had working with Mr. Ficklin and wish him a rewarding and well-deserved retirement.

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Sheryl Shenberger, Director of the NDC, Named Meritorious Executive Presidential Rank Award Recipient

The PIDB congratulates Ms. Sheryl Shenberger on being selected as a FY 2015 Meritorious Executive Presidential Rank Award recipient.

We understand the Presidential Rank Award Program honors high-performing career senior executives for “sustained extraordinary accomplishment.” The news of Ms. Shenberger being selected for the award was unsurprising to us. We have seen firsthand her dedication and hard work during her tenure as the Director of the National Declassification Center (NDC), establishing and expanding its capabilities since her appointment in 2010. In particular, we applaud her diligence in building relationships between the NDC, Executive Branch agencies and the public. Ms. Shenberger’s determination ultimately led to the retirement of the 361 million page backlog of records at the National Archives, an incredible task that she and her colleagues accomplished by the deadline imposed by the President. Bravo!

Ms. Shenberger’s dedication to the national security mission has led to a more open and transparent government, helping to change the classification culture in the Executive Branch for the betterment of our citizens. On behalf of the Board and its emeritus members, we congratulate Ms. Shenberger for this richly deserved recognition.

 

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Third Open Government National Action Plan Published

Yesterday, the President issued the Third Open Government National Action Plan (NAP 3.0) as part of the Open Government Partnership, a cornerstone of his administration.  Included in the NAP 3.0 are new and extended commitments under the specific initiative, “Streamline the Declassification Process.”  Under this initiative, the President pledges to identify processes and tools to help automate and streamline declassification.  He also reiterates his position that “while national security requires that certain information be protected as classified, democratic principles require government to be transparent, wherever possible, about its activities.”

The four commitments specifically outlined in the NAP 3.0 are goals that will combat the “time-consuming and costly process often involves manual review of records.”  The administration will:

  • develop a plan to implement technological tools to help automate declassification review,
  • pilot the use of a topic-based inter-agency declassification guide,
  • establish a special systematic declassification review program and
  • declassify historical intelligence records in the public interest.

Of particular interest to the PIDB is the first commitment, which concerns the implementation of technology the Central Intelligence Agency and National Archives developed in response to the NAP 2.0.  These pilot projects yielded real results through the development of a technological capability to assist decision-making in declassification.  The members are proud these efforts steamed from a recommendation made in our 2012 report on Transforming the Security Classification System and continue to support these efforts.  The June 25, 2015 public meeting of the PIDB was an opportunity to showcase these pilot efforts and call for the implementation of these proven concepts.

When the President tasked the PIDB with studying the security classification system and recommending changes for transformation, he sought to modernize and reform the system to one that will function in today’s digital information sharing environment and in the future.  The members share the President’s vision of a security classification system that limits secrecy and promotes transparency throughout government.

Again, the PIDB congratulates the President and stands ready to support the Classification Reform Committee in its work to meet the commitments of the NAP 3.0.

You can view and print a copy of the Third Open Government National Action Plan here:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/final_us_open_government_national_action_plan_3_0.pdf

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