Looking Back and Moving Forward, PIDB Promotes Modernization, Efficiency in Declassification

On October 27, 1999, when he introduced the first bill to create the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan cited the founding patriot James Madison: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sen. Moynihan argued that in the decades after World War II, arming citizens with knowledge had become increasingly difficult to achieve.  By 1999, more than 1.5 billion documents over 25 years old had been restricted from the public for national security reasons.  He perceived that state secrets not only “impoverish our country’s historical record,” but impede Americans from making the most of their national experience because “both mistakes and triumphs fall through the cracks of our collective history, making it much harder to resolve key questions about our past and to chart our future actions.”

Above all, Sen. Moynihan observed that the “warehousing and withholding” of historical evidence fosters the spread of conspiracy theories, exploited to undermine responsible government by what the mid-20th Century historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964).  Sen. Moynihan understood that greater openness in regulating state secrets would better allow “for the government to explain itself and to defend its actions” against implausible interpretations, and to better promote the informed decision-making that James Madison found so crucial to self-government in the American Republic.

To better inform both policymakers and citizens, Sen. Moynihan’s legislation proposed “a centralized, rational way” for Congress and the White House to lead the declassification of historically significant records, “all the while seeking maximum efficiency and disclosure.”  As an instrument for efficiency in disclosure, his bill put forth the establishment of what became the PIDB: a nine-member board, five appointed by the President, and one each by the Senate Majority and Minority leaders, the House Speaker and the House Minority leader.

This nonpartisan board of Congressional and Presidential appointees, tasked with prioritizing and expediting declassification, was enacted by Congress as “The Public Interest Declassification Act of 2000.”  It derived from one of 16 recommendations presented in the final report (March 1997) of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, also known as the “Moynihan Commission” after its chair, Sen. Moynihan.

In addition to its legislative mandate, the Moynihan Commission’s legacy to PIDB included personnel.  Moynihan Commission member Martin C. Faga, a former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space, later served as a member of the PIDB (2004-2014) and continues to advise the Board informally. Joan Vail Grimson, who served as Counsel for Security Policy for the Moynihan Commission, also served as a PIDB member (2005-2008).

Today, the exploding volume of information and costs of government secrecy make the PIDB’s pursuit of efficiency in declassification more relevant than ever before.  In 2018, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) reported to the President that for FY 2017, classification cost the Federal government $18.49 billion, and an additional $1.49 billion spent by private industry supporting Federal contracts.  As agencies prepare for the requirement to submit only electronic records to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by 2022, declassification processes remain hamstrung by analog technologies, outmoded policies, and an obsolete information management structure that compound the costs and burdens of secrecy.

The final report of the Moynihan Commission included a section on the implications of emerging technologies for information security that continue to grow at the center of PIDB’s role in arming citizens with the knowledge required for self-government.  With foresight, the report warned that the information revolution “requires a fundamental rethinking of traditional approaches to safeguarding national security information.”

The PIDB continues to promote modernization and efficiency in classification and declassification through evidence-based policy recommendations, on the conviction of Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary dictum, which Sen. Moynihan defended in his last address to Congress: “An informed citizenry is vital to the functioning of a democratic society.”

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