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 thank the public and representatives from civil society and open government advocacy groups, Government agencies, the Congress and all attendees who participated in Sunshine Week activities. The Board wishes to thank the Washington College of Law’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy for hosting its Seventh Annual Freedom of Information Day Celebration at the American University. Board Member Ken Wainstein participated in a panel addressing current national security classification developments, as did John Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office and Executive Secretary of the Board. In case you missed it, you can view the forum here. The large number of participants at this event and at other events reinforces our belief that citizens are interested in actively engaging with Government. Sunshine Week highlights citizen interest in participating in policy discussions and in holding Government accountable for its decisions. We will continue to advocate for national security classification and declassification reform and advocate for policies to improve Government transparency. We heard of the need for appropriate and effective oversight of our Government’s activities, particularly those involving the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the monitoring of intelligence activities by the Congress. At the American University, panelists discussed the implications of FOIA-related legislation, as well as observations and recommendations regarding the policies surrounding the Government’s use of surveillance activity. Ken Wainstein and John Fitzpatrick discussed the challenges of over-classification, recent Government efforts to reduce the scope of classification, and noted the difficulty in changing a long-standing culture of secrecy ingrained in system users.

Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, provided a lunchtime address that largely reinforced many of the recommendations we seek in our Transforming the Security Classification System report. Mr. Litt affirmed the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) commitment to improving the transparency of the Intelligence Community. He acknowledged the need for the all intelligence agencies to reassess their view on secrecy and strike a better balance between transparency and secrecy so the American people have a clearer understanding of how the work of these agencies keep us safe. He noted the need for sufficient transparency for informed debate and a discussion on the limits of intelligence policies and practices. Most importantly though, Mr. Litt discussed the causes and prevalence of over-classification, noting that in his view, FOIA case officers should ask not only if they can classify and redact information, but whether or not they should when conducting reviews. Although a risk adverse culture persists, Mr. Litt iterated the leadership commitment of the DNI and of senior leaders at intelligence agencies to change this culture to one more open and transparent.

The issue of cultural change discussed during Sunshine Week reinforces the importance of the work of the President’s Security Classification Reform Committee (SCRC). We are pleased that the President adopted our primary recommendation and established this committee. We are also pleased that the President included several of our recommendations as specific action items in his Second National Action Plan for Open Government. As the SCRC begins its work, we will continue to advocate for our recommendations and believe, if adopted, they will improve our nation’s security and improve Government transparency. We look forward to seeing the results of the SCRC and having the Government act on our recommendations.

At the conclusion of Sunshine Week, we reaffirm our commitment to more an open and transparent 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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