PIDB Responses to Questions Received at the Virtual Public Meeting on May 18, 2021

Today we begin posting responses to questions received by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) regarding the virtual public meeting that streamed live on NARA’s YouTube Channel last Tuesday, May 18. The first set posted below contains questions received during and prior to the meeting, which the PIDB members and guest speakers Phil Zelikow and Jamie Gorelick answered live during the meeting.

In the coming days, Transforming Classification will continue by posting questions and answers that the PIDB members were not able to discuss before the end of the virtual public meeting.

Thank you for your questions and comments. We look forward to continuing the public discussion of important issues in reforming the secrecy system of the Federal Government.

Questions and Answers:

1.)  I am a declassification reviewer for an Executive branch agency. We are always short of resources. That means staff and technology. We do the best we can. What can the PIDB do to help get us the resources we need?

Last year we wrote a report that serves as a blueprint for modernizing the classification and declassification system. You can find it on our website. The need is great to reform not only the way you declassify records, but we must also reform the way we classify information. Updating and using advanced technology is critical to solving both issues. As part of our work this year, we are planning to engage with the Executive branch and with the Congress on the need to modernize policies and practices.

2.)  There were several questions related to the Kennedy Assassination records. In essence, the question is, ‘When will they be made public?’ They are now very old and there is no excuse why the CIA should keep them secret. What can the PIDB do to support the declassification and release of these records?

First, I know the staff just summarized several questions. We will post all questions and comments received on our blog in their entirety as well as our responses.

Let me just say that we understand your frustration. I want to commend the Archivist for his comments earlier in this meeting and are pleased that the National Archives is acting to support the maximum amount of declassification as possible.

We have not studied this issue in detail lately – it was included as a recommendation in our 2014 Setting Priorities Report. It might make sense for us to meet with the Archives to learn more about these records and to do so before the October deadline so we could make recommendations to the President.

3.)  Does the Board have additional documents or records that they would like to see prioritized for declassification in addition to items of interest from the 9/11 Commission?

Although I just joined the PIDB, I know it has long advocated for prioritizing the declassification review of records most sought after by the public and those considered to be historically significant – like records proposed for inclusion in the Foreign Relations of the United States series that is published by the Department of State.

Back in 2014, while I was still in Government, the PIDB invited stakeholders to suggest topics for prioritized declassification. These were included in the appendix to its report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification. This list is thorough and we remain interested in having the Executive branch prioritize the topics listed in the appendix.

I think it is important that our Government consider prioritizing the declassification review of 9/11 Commission records – and certainly the ones our two distinguished speakers highlighted.

We encourage all stakeholders to send us your thoughts – by email and on our blog to give us feedback on those topics we’ve already identified, or to suggest new ones. 

4.) What can the PIDB do to speed up the review of 9/11 Commission records?

We think the records in this collection are historically important. Earlier this year, we received briefings from archivists at the Center for Legislative Archives and the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

Clearly, they are doing all they can to make these records available. But there are challenges – from antiquated review processes that exist across the Executive branch to the lack of secure connectivity to quicken the pace of declassification review.

We also heard today that some records are quite important – and, speaking on behalf of myself, think we should seek ways to support their prioritized declassification. It is food for thought to discuss with my PIDB colleagues.

5.) President Biden recently included an additional $1 billion dollars to the government’s Technology Modernization Fund or TMF.  Given that PIDB’s last report focused heavily on the need to modernize the classification and declassification programs and implement technology to support the processes, does the Board see value in agencies using the TMF to bridge the gap?

We see this as a big win. It’s an opportunity for agencies like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to “Think Big.” In our 2019 Report, we advocated for the DNI to serve as the Executive Agency to lead Executive branch-wide change. This fund is ideally suited to help all agencies who have limited funds to develop solutions to improve classification and declassification that will help all agencies.

For instance, I could see the DNI working with the National Archives to redesign work-flow processes at the National Declassification Center to review electronic records using automated or technology-assisted review. We think this will be especially important when the Archives is reviewing Terabytes of classified Presidential records. The DNI has the experience, knows and uses these types of advanced technologies, and understands the importance of identifying sensitive information.

It can also help the National Archives with its efforts to modernize electronic record-keeping practices across Government too. Modernizing systems across government will improve public discovery and accessibility of electronic and digitized records.

6.) Since the digitization of information has progressed in the years since 9/11, what should the government be doing now with new technologies to make current historical records like those created by the 9/11 Commission easier to locate and access going forward?

There have been few pilot projects to modify Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools for searching large volumes of electronic records subject to classification and declassification review.

An earlier PIDB report highlighted an CIA effort. Our Board also heard from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency about how they developed and implemented a tool that uses a single Classification Guide to improve their classification decisions and make them more consistent. Recently, we also heard from the Department of Energy, who are testing technologies to improve the identification and proper classification of Restricted Data.

These are small steps – and all projects to date have been completed in a vacuum without help or expertise of other agencies.

If applied, we feel these tools and data applications will eventually provide significantly faster processing for very large volumes of electronic records.

However, the Executive Branch is not doing enough. It needs to expand these still really minor initiatives to develop similar tools on a larger scale and include all agencies with equities.

We feel that the kind of coordination, research and development that is required to adapt AI and other digital tools and to coordinate their use across the Federal government can only happen with direction from the White House, and designation of an authority to implement them in an government-wide system-of-systems.

That is why our 2020 Report to the President recommended the appointment of the Director of National Intelligence as the Executive Agent who has the expertise, stature, and resources capable of modernizing the secrecy system.

7.) Would the Board comment on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agency declassification programs?

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all of us. It has impacted and disrupted Government operations. I’d quickly note that it is has impacted our work. We have not met in person as a Board since the Congress reauthorized us in December 2019. We’ve only been able to meet virtually through teleconference calls and virtual public meetings.

I think Mark Bradley spoke about this in his opening remarks – that it has been a challenge.  What I would say, on behalf of the Board, is this is another reason why modernization is critical. We need electronic tools and a robust classified communication network available to all agencies which handle classified information. We cannot continue to be restricted to Government operations using practices from the 1950’s when we have the need and the means to operate in a digital world.

8.) What efforts are being made to apply existing technologies like better network connectivity between agencies or AI for locating and searching records to address the backlog in paper records? Is there anything that the White House or the Executive Branch can do to adapt Information Technology to deal with old paper records?

We do not fully know. We do know that the IC Inspector General investigated the lack of connectivity between IC FOIA components in 2018, but we are not sure how much progress has been made to address that deficiency. We also know from briefings with National Archives officials that it – and the National Declassification Center lack secure access. This is the most basic premise for modernizing our secrecy system – agencies need secure technology to communicate electronically with one another. After that, we think that the DNI should lead a cross-agency effort to modernize technological tools to support more efficient and effective classification and declassification. Providing secure network connectivity would be a good start. But, ultimately, more is needed.

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