12/8 Public Meeting Preview: Comments from Civil Society Participants

In anticipation of our public meeting this Thursday, December 8, 2016, we have asked our Civil Society participants to share comments and recommendations in the form of white papers.  You will find white paper submissions from Patrice McDermott at OpenTheGovernment.org, Nate Jones from the National Security Archive, Elizabeth Goitein from The Brennan Center for Justice, and Steven Aftergood from the Federation of American Scientists by clicking on the links below.  Thank you for your willingness to participate in this important discussion.

Please remember to REGISTER for the public meeting using Eventbrite.

Clarify and Delimit Scope of Classified “Methods,” by Patrice McDermott, OpentheGovernment.org 

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified:” Tangible Steps to Fix the Classification and Declassification System, by Nate Jones, National Security Archive

Eight Steps to Reduce Overclassification and Rescue Declassification by Elizabeth Goitein, The Brennan Center for Justice

Modernizing the National Security Classification and Declassification
Systems Through the Next Administration’s Executive Order by Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists

 

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“There’s classified, and then there’s classified:” Tangible Steps to Fix the Classification and Declassification System by Nate Jones, National Security Archive

For the Public Interest Declassification Board:

The former head of the Information Security Oversight Office, responsible for oversight of the US classification system, has acknowledged that classification officials joke that “you could easily classify the ham sandwich.”[1]  Barack Obama has summarized the tension between the public’s right to know and the necessity for the government to keep some secrets as: “There’s classified, and then there’s classified.”[2]  Certainly, much work remains for the Public Interest Declassification Board to meet its goal of “modernizing the national security classification and declassification systems.”  Here I suggest three achievable measures that the next Executive Order on Classification could take to reduce over-classification, improve declassification, and begin to rebuild the public’s trust that documents stamped as “secret” actually contain information that should be withheld from the public.

First, the next Executive Order should further improve the efficiency of the National Declassification Center and expand its authority.  The NDC has eliminated much—though certainly not all —of the National Archives’ backlog of historic documents.  Its “indexing on demand” program serves as a quick and efficient mechanism for researchers to request and usually receive previously classified records.  But further improvements are needed for the NDC to achieve its mission of “releasing all we can, protecting what we must.”  It must completely end its “pass fail” reviews where a single classified word in a document can cause it to “go to the back of the vault” and remain classified indefinitely.  It must also stop allowing multiple re-reviews by multiple agencies of historic documents.    The NDC should also, once again, adhere to the principle of automatic declassification; this principle, established in the current Executive Order[3] but not practiced, requires documents to be declassified without a review when they reach a certain age.  This is the only workable solution to the coming exponential avalanche of digital historic records.  The PIDB has correctly called these malpractices as “wasteful, expensive,“ and “unsustainable.”[4]  Fortunately, the NDC has taken note and begun to remedy them.

Once these inefficiencies are modified and the NDC is solidified as the government’s premier, most efficient declassification mechanism, it should expand to target not just classified documents accessioned to NARA but also those held by the Presidential Libraries. Declassifying documents held by the Presidential Libraries is the bureaucratic equivalent to passing a kidney stone.  For a member of the public to even see what is in the Library’s boxes a researcher must submit a Freedom of Information Act request (which usually takes years to process).  Even worse, any document that has ever been deemed classified is not even reviewed during this process and the researcher must submit a second Mandatory Declassification Review request (which again usually takes years), before possibly having the ability to access this critical history (even then, if it has been censored by an overzealous redactor, the MDR appeal process, again, usually takes years).[5] If the incoming administration is able to utilize the strength of the National Declassification Center to declassify all declassifiable material held by the Presidential Libraries, it will be an extremely beneficial accomplishment.

Second, the incoming administration’s Executive Order on Classification should finally fully realize the Moynihan Commission’s finding that “the cost of protection, vulnerability, threat, risk, value of the information, and public benefit from release” must be considered when deciding whether or not to classify or declassify any document.[6]  This means that no sets of information—including any agency’s operational files—should be automatically exempted from declassification review.  The US government once used this specious claim to attempt to thwart the release of any President’s Daily Brief, ever.  Fortunately, under the current administration the Central Intelligence Agency and National Archives reversed course and released the PDBs from the Johnson and Nixon administrations —though many still have far too many redactions.  Unfortunately, agencies including the CIA continue to ignore the current Executive Order’s instruction that “No information may remain classified indefinitely” and refuse to even review other historically important operational files for release.

The current Executive Order also includes a provision which states that in “exceptional circumstances” an agency head may declassify “properly classified” information when she deems that “the public interest in disclosure outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.”  The language in the next Executive Order should be modified so that this common sense logic applies to all classification and declassification decisions, not merely “exceptional circumstances.”  While the fact that President Kennedy agreed to remove Jupiter Missiles from Turkey to end the Cuban Missile Crisis may be technically “properly classified,”[7] it is not a justifiable secret to keep from the public —and greatly harms the government’s ability to keep its true secrets.

Finally, the Public Interest Declassification Board should get into the declassification business.  The Board has done much good work by issuing guidance and recommendations, providing a forum for public insight, and improving classification and declassification from the inside.  But it has done little to actually declassify documents.  The next Executive Order on Classification –or if necessary, legislation– should empower the PIDB get its hands dirty.  The PIDB should have the authority to compel the NDC or another body to declassify the documents, including those referenced in this piece, that it deems in the public interest —there are trillions of them.

[1] Jonathan Abel, “Do You Have to Keep the Government’s Secrets?: Retroactively Classified Documents, the First Amendment, and the Power To Make Secrets Out of the Public Record,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 163, 2015.

[2] Michael D. Shear, “Obama Says Hillary Clinton Wouldn’t Intentionally Endanger U.S. With Emails,” New York Times, April 10, 2016.

[3] Executive Order 13526

[4] The Public Interest Declassification Boart, “Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Classification,” December, 2014.

[5] In one startling case, it took the National Security Archive 12 years to win the release of a document held by the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. See http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB427/#_ftn12

[6] “Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy,” 1997.

[7] Bill Burr, “Dubious Secrets of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Security Archive, February 21, 2014, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb457/

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Clarify and Delimit Scope of Classified “Methods,” by Patrice McDermott, OpentheGovernment.org

A White Paper Submission to the PIDB:

Section 102(d)(3) of the National Security Act of 1947 (1) makes the Director of National Intelligence responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure. The director has “very broad authority to protect all sources of intelligence information from disclosure.”(2)

As has been regularly noted, though, almost anything can serve as an intelligence source or method, including a subscription to the daily newspaper. And we have had confirmation since 2013 that assertions—that classified methods were so intertwined with policy discussions that the documents (in particular FISC orders) could not possibly be declassified, even in a redacted form—were not true. They could not be declassified—until they were.(3) Bulk collections of US persons communications records were declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The FISC has also found in several cases that the government’s surveillance, classified as a method, was unlawful.

Executive Orders on National Security Classification have routinely extended the permission to classify intelligence sources and methods. It is instructive to note that a predecessor order, EO 11652, issued by President Nixon in 1972, gave concrete examples of the sort of potential damage resulting from disclosure that would justify a “Top Secret” classification of the information to be withheld: “… the compromise of vital national defense plans or complex cryptologic and communication intelligence systems; the revelation of sensitive intelligence operations; and the disclosure of scientific or technological developments vital to national security.”(4)

The overbroad terminology and lack of specificity in subsequent Orders has given broad rein to the Intelligence Community. Indeed, twenty-five years later Senator Patrick Moynihan addressed this same issue in the 1997 Moynihan Commission report:

Underlying the rationale of “sources and methods” as the reason that information is kept secret is not the content of the information itself, but instead the way it was obtained. Yet the public and historians generally do not care how the information was collected; they want to know how it was used and what decisions it informed. Too often, there is a tendency to use the sources and methods language contained in the National Security Act of 1947 to automatically classify virtually anything that is collected by an intelligence agency–including information collected from open sources.

… Clarification through issuance of a directive by the Director of Central     Intelligence of the scope of and reasons for sources and methods protection would still ensure that sensitive information stays secret. At the same time, such a directive explaining the appropriate scope of that protection would help prevent the automatic withholding of all information that might relate in any manner, however indirectly, to an intelligence source or method.

National security classification should protect our democracy, not shield government actions that – too often consciously and deliberately – go around democratic practices and subvert constitutional protections. The vagueness and un-delimited scope of classified “intelligence methods” needs to be rectified in the next Executive Order to ensure that it does not permit these uses.

(1) 50 U.S.C.§ 403(d)(3)
(2) Central Intelligence Agency v. Sims, 471 U.S. 159, 168-169 (1985).
(3) seehttps://icontherecord.tumblr.com/post/70683717031/dni-announces-the-declassification-of-the
(4) see http://www.fas.org/sgp/library/quist2/chap_7.html

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Eight Steps to Reduce Overclassification and Rescue Declassification by Elizabeth Goitein, The Brennan Center for Justice

A White Paper Submission to the PIDB:

In a political climate where consensus is rare, there is remarkably little dispute about the need for classification reform. Officials from Democratic and Republican administrations agree that far too much information is unnecessarily classified and that the current declassification process is wholly inadequate to handle the oncoming wave of classified digital information. It is also clear that our dysfunctional classification system harms national security, as it inhibits information-sharing and invites carelessness.
Below are eight measures the next executive order could include that would go far toward reducing overclassification and rescuing declassification.

Reducing Overclassification
Overclassification is enabled by a lack of objective criteria to guide original classification decisions. While officials must be able to exercise discretion and judgment, these should not be unbounded. The classification categories listed in section 1.4 of the order are too broad to provide meaningful constraints. Moreover, the concept of “damage to the national security” is not defined and is extremely elastic. The next executive order should create a White House-led commission of senior agency officials charged with (1) tightening the criteria for classification, and (2) providing a definition of “damage to the national security” that sets an appropriately high bar.

Ensuring that the criteria are sufficiently specific will require addressing the treatment of “intelligence sources and methods.” Some agencies interpret the National Security Act to categorically bar public disclosure of sources and methods, without any further inquiry into their sensitivity. In fact, the law requires the Director of National Intelligence to protect against “unauthorized” disclosures only, and makes clear that the classification of sources and methods must be under appropriate legal authority. The next executive order should clarify that sources and methods may be classified only if they otherwise meet the criteria for classification.

Another problem lies in the guidance provided to derivative classifiers, whose role is not to exercise independent judgment but merely to carry forward original classifiers’ decisions. The topics in some agency classification guides are broad or vague, deputizing derivative classifiers to make their own assessments of national security harm. Many guides are outdated and thus unreliable. And classifiers are understandably overwhelmed by the sheer number of guides and topics. The next Fundamental Classification Guidance Review should be directed at addressing these problems.

A major source of overclassification is the absence of disincentives. In theory, agencies may penalize officials for improper classification, but there is little appetite to do so and no system in place to identify individual offenders. The executive order should direct agencies to implement an auditing system, such as the spot audits recommended by the Brennan Center, with mandatory consequences for repeated or intentional misuse of classification.

The classification of rules or legal interpretations that set binding standards for government conduct – i.e., “secret law” – engenders unique harms and constitutional concerns. The next executive order should impose a higher substantive bar for classifying legal authorities and implement additional procedural safeguards to ensure they are classified only in rare cases of clear necessity. The Brennan Center has developed specific recommendations along these lines.

Rescuing Declassification
The current executive order requires “automatic” declassification of information after 25 years unless it falls under certain exemptions. In fact, declassification is anything but automatic. Multiple agencies perform lengthy “equity” reviews, and the so-called “Kyl-Lott amendment” requires line-by-line review absent certification that the information is “highly unlikely” to contain nuclear information. As long as these impediments remain, declassification has no chance of keeping pace with classification. The next executive order should authorize the National Declassification Center to declassify records at 25 years without agency referral, and empower agencies to make broad categorical decisions about which records are “highly unlikely” to contain nuclear information.

Inexplicably, there is no system in place to identify and declassify information classified for less than 25 years, unless it is the subject of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) request. Such information often languishes until the 25-year mark is reached. The next executive order should direct the implementation of a two-tiered system for declassifying information classified for less than 25 years. Where the declassification date is tied to the completion of specific operations or events, the document should be marked accordingly, and classification should be “self-cancelling” – i.e., declassification should happen electronically and without review. In all other cases, an electronic alert should trigger review when a document reaches the declassification date.

Finally, MDR has been highly effective in achieving declassification of information classified unnecessarily or for too long. However, it operates too slowly to be useful when the information sought relates to immediate public controversies. MDR lacks an expedited review mechanism like the one that exists under FOIA. The next executive order should rectify this and establish an expedited review track where the requested information would contribute to a significant current public conversation or debate.

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Modernizing the National Security Classification and Declassification Systems Through the Next Administration’s Executive Order, by Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists

A White Paper Submission to the PIDB:

Thank you to Chairman Morrison and to the Board for getting this conversation started.

Assuming that the next Administration will in fact prepare a new executive order on classification policy, I would like to propose two specific steps for consideration: (1) a new procedure for considering declassification of properly classified information, and (2) a new initiative to develop and test innovative information security measures.

1. A new provision for requesting declassification of “properly classified” information

I suggest modifying the current provision in Section 3.1(d) of E.O. 13526 to establish new procedures that would enable the public to seek declassification of properly classified information.

As things stand, information that is “properly classified” is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Likewise, mandatory declassification review does not extend to properly classified information. Classification challenges under Section 1.8 of the executive order only apply to information that is “improperly classified.”

It is true that Section 3.1(d) does currently permit discretionary declassification of properly classified information by the original classifier when “questions arise” about whether the public interest outweighs the need to protect the information. But it provides no procedures for actually raising such questions, or for third-party review of the original classification decision.

So there is a gap in current policy with respect to the possibility of declassification of properly classified information.

We know that properly classified information is sometimes of such profound public interest that withholding it is undesirable and counterproductive. That was the conclusion that was eventually reached by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper concerning the program to collect telephone metadata (known as the 215 program) that was revealed in 2013 by Edward Snowden. DNI Clapper determined in retrospect that early disclosure of the 215 program would have been the best move from all points of view.(1) Yet as an ongoing intelligence surveillance program, it was properly classified under the terms of the executive order, and there was no effective procedure for raising and reconsidering the question of its declassification.

Therefore, I propose that the next executive order should include a provision that would allow members of the public to initiate an appeal to an entity other than the original classifying agency – perhaps a new ISCAP-like body, or an enhanced PIDB with its own declassification authority – and to argue that a category of information that is currently and properly classified should nevertheless be reviewed for declassification and disclosure in light of a compelling public interest. The reviewing entity – which must be independent of the original classifier in order to provide a fresh, unbiased assessment – would be tasked to weigh that larger public interest and to render judgment about whether or not to sustain, or modify, the original classification.

What types of classified information might be subject to such procedures? Notionally, they include intelligence supporting a U.S. decision to engage in military operations, the conduct of detention and interrogation activities, the casualties arising from targeted killing operations, and other categories of information that may be squarely within the boundaries of information that is otherwise properly classified, but that are also of momentous public interest.

A process to enable deliberate declassification of such information should be incorporated in the next executive order.

2. Create a test-bed for new classification policies

Although President Obama spoke in 2009 of pursuing “a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system,” such a transformation has not yet occurred. In part, that is because the current system continues to serve a basic information security function and, in part, because superior alternative approaches have not been devised, tested or validated in practice so that they could be adopted.

It is time to undertake that task of creating the “next” national security classification system.

The current executive order is unlikely to be replaced all at once by an order that prescribes a wholly new and different system. Rather, new approaches may be chosen once they have been proven effective on a small scale. It will be necessary to “build a bridge” to the next classification system through trial and error.

So the next executive order should mandate  the development and testing of “next-generation” classification and declassification procedures on a trial basis.

Of course, it is not enough that these procedures be new and different. They must also meet other criteria such as: simplicity, cost-effectiveness, ease of use, responsiveness to oversight, robust error correction, minimized scope and duration of control (in the case of classification), and increased productivity (in the case of declassification).

Among the kinds of measures that could be evaluated and certified for broader use are emerging technological approaches to facilitating classification and declassification, radical reductions in formal controls on information, expanded authority to declassify, traceability of classification throughout the information life cycle, increased flexibility in authorized access, and so forth.

Who should perform such development and testing? The Department of Defense, which is the largest generator of classified information, would seem to be a logical choice.

Within DoD, there is a Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) that is tasked to pursue “disruptive applications and new and unconventional uses of existing system and near-term technologies” including “program information management strategies, objectives and technologies.”(2)

While national security classification policy has not been considered part of the SCO portfolio up to now (and it may not want the job), this Office might be a good fit particularly because of its emphasis on practical innovation.

(1) See Eli Lake, “Spy Chief: We Should’ve Told You We Track Your Calls,” The Daily Beast, February 17, 2014; available at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/17/spy-chief-we-should-ve-told-you-we-track-your-calls.html

(2) DoD Directive 5105.86, Director, Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), November 14, 2016; available at http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/510586_dodd_2016.pdf

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Mark A. Bradley Appointed Director of the Information Security Oversight Office

We are pleased to forward the news that Mark A. Bradley was named as the new Director of ISOO, and therefore is the new Executive Secretary of the PIDB.  His new role will become effective December 25, 2016.

Mr. Bradley is currently the Director of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), Declassification, and Pre-publication Review, National Security Division, Office of Law and Policy at the Department of Justice (DOJ). In that capacity, he chairs the DOJ’s Department Review Committee, serves as its Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) representative, sits on its Access Review Committee, which hears and decides security clearance revocation appeals, and handles a variety of other special assignments. While at the Department, he has also served as the Deputy Counsel for Intelligence Policy, the Acting Chief for Intelligence Oversight, and the Director of the National Security Division’s FOIA/Declassification unit. He has been a member of the Federal government’s Senior Executive Service since 2003.

Before joining the Department of Justice in November 2000, he served as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s legislative assistant for foreign affairs and intelligence matters and as his last legislative director. He co-drafted the legislation that established the Public Interest Declassification Board. Mr. Bradley, who remains a member of the District of Columbia Bar, has also worked as a criminal defense lawyer in the District of Columbia defending indigents accused of serious crimes.

The Society for History in the Federal Government awarded A Very Principled Boy, his biography of Soviet spy Duncan Lee, its 2015 George Pendleton Prize for being the best book written by a federal historian in 2014.

Mr. Bradley is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington & Lee University and holds an M.A. in Modern History from Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar, and a J.D. from the University of Virginia.

The PIDB extends its sincere congratulations and welcome to Mark in his new role at ISOO and on the PIDB!

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SAVE THE DATE: PUBLIC MEETING OF THE PIDB

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

When: Thursday, December 8, 2016 from 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.

Doors Open: 8:45 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 discuss recommendations for improved transparency and open government for the new Presidential Administration.  The PIDB is soliciting ideas for revising Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information” in support of reducing over-classification, improving declassification, and ensuring a credible and transparent security classification system.  More details about our presenters will be available in the coming weeks.

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. One week advance notice will allow us to provide the best access accommodations.

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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PIDB Public Meeting Recording Now Available

The PIDB hosted a public meeting on Thursday, June 23, 2016 at the National Archives.  The meeting was an opportunity to engage publicly with White House leadership on progress in developing a technology investment strategy for the management of classified information.  The meeting was also a chance to hear comments from current and former members of the PIDB and have a dialog with civil society groups, government stakeholders and the public on the work of the PIDB.  You may view the meeting here and its transcript here.

Mr. John Fitzpatrick, Senior Director for Records Access and Information Security Management at the National Security Council, provided a summary of the progress he is making to instigate White House commitment to improving declassification through the use of technology.  Mr. Fitzpatrick provided an update on the collaborative work of the Classification Reform Committee and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to build a cross-agency program leveraging technology and altering long-standing policy and practice.  This is a challenge never before addressed at this level of government.  Mr. Fitzpatrick indicated the expressed interest of the President has incentivized the Executive Branch to complete the framework for the technology investment strategy in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of a new program in the years ahead.

The impetus for White House-level commitment in building a technology strategy stemmed from previous recommendations made by the PIDB.  The members have recommended in all of their previously published reports the need for the government to seriously commit to improved technology for the specific purpose of modernizing classification, declassification and records management.  In an effort to expand on these ideas, the PIDB published its newest white paper, The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification.  The white paper describes the work of the PIDB to study in-depth agency declassification technology initiatives.  It summarizes findings made by the PIDB’s Declassification Technology Working Group to understand how ready agencies are for managing classified information in the digital age and what challenges, barriers and opportunities exist for modernization across the government.  The narrative also makes more specific recommendations on next steps and addresses the needs of agencies, including the requirement of more resources to fund technology investment for these programs.

The public meeting was also an opportunity for the public to hear from the members.  Nancy Soderberg, the PIDB’s outgoing Chair, had an opportunity to provide observations from her time on the PIDB, including giving candid commentary on the need for immediate action by the White House to provide resources and solidify a policy and strategy for improved technology investment for classification, declassification and records management.  The PIDB’s Acting Chair, William Leary, also announced the impending appointments of new members James E. Baker and Trevor W. Morrison (who will also be the PIDB’s new chair).

The PIDB will continue its engagement with civil society groups and the public in the coming months as it begins discussing what policy recommendations it will make to the incoming Administration concerning transformation.  Please continue to remain engage with the work of the PIDB through its blog and website.

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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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