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We believe the current classification and declassification systems are outdated and incapable of dealing adequately with the large volumes of classified information generated in an era of digital communications and information systems.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classification and declassification policies remain mired in a Cold War culture of caution and risk avoidance and these outdated policies do not facilitate rapid and agile information sharing required to fully sup­port today’s national security mission.  The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission.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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