PIDB Comments on the National Archives Draft Strategic Plan

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) was established to promote “the fullest possible access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant … national security decisions and … activities.” This mandate reflects an underlying premise of representative democracy: citizens’ access to information about Government is essential to their informed decisions and their ability to hold elected officials accountable.

We were pleased to see in Goal 1 that the National Archives (NARA) mission remains focused on providing access to Federal Government records. We applaud NARA’s effort to modernize records management practices across the Federal government and its work supporting the transition to digital government. Still, we are concerned that NARA’s draft strategic plan does not include goals for processing high-value classified records, including classified electronic records for public access.

There are no specific goals for providing access to high-value classified collections, such as Presidential records, Congressional records, and other historically significant Federal records series. Our concern is not new: the PIDB first wrote of its concerns in its 2008 Report to the President titled, Improving Declassification and provided recommendations to improve public access. NARA’s draft strategic plan does not address this need or address the need to modernize declassification processes at the National Declassification Center (NDC). It should include objectives and metrics for the review of these historically significant records.

We also urge NARA to consider specific objectives and metrics for processing classified electronic Presidential records. These electronic records were transferred to NARA’s legal custody prior to a declassification review. They are, by nature, significant and highly valued records which directly hold elected officials accountable, provide insight into important national security decisions, and allow for the study of these Presidential administrations. The preservation, declassification review, and access to these records should be directly referenced in NARA’s strategic plan.

Moreover, the PIDB remains concerned that NARA and Executive branch agencies are unprepared to review classified electronic records for public access and the NDC’s ability to provide access to large volumes of classified electronic records is in doubt. While agencies have not yet accessioned their classified Federal records to NARA, this challenge affects the NDC at NARA now. It has classified electronic Presidential records that will be subject to the automatic declassification provisions of E.O. 13526 in 2025. While this volume of classified digital data from the Clinton administration is small, exponentially larger volumes – from the George W. Bush administration – will be subject to automatic classification in the next decade. Preparing for this deluge will take significant time, resources, and planning. We believe NARA needs to include goals and metrics in its strategic plan now.

A key part of this modernization effort is the adoption and use of advanced technologies in declassification processes. We first noted this need in our 2008 Report to the President, and then focused on it in our 2012 Report to the President on Transforming the Security Classification System. In 2016, we wrote a White Paper titled, The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification. Most recently, last year, we highlighted it in our latest Report to the President, A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization of the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification Systems.

Recommendations in these reports consistently advocated for the development of tools to use Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and other advanced technologies to support the declassification review of large volumes of electronic records. The exponential growth and sheer volume of electronic records requires bold action, investment, and new policies and processes. We believe NARA, whose main mission is to preserve and provide public access to government records, should include goals and metrics for developing, piloting, and implementing new public access and declassification review processes that use advanced technologies.

The PIDB read with interest the metric in NARA’s draft strategic plan on reducing the time it takes to create cases for complex Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. While increasing case backlogs are a problem – and backlogs will continue to grow as requests seek large volumes of electronic records – we do not believe this metric will lead to improved citizen access to government records. We understand that many complex FOIA requests require referrals to equity-owning agencies and therefore the agency receiving the request has little control over the pace of the equity-owning agencies’ reviews.

Still, we believe NARA should include metrics that lead to improved processing and review efficiencies and effectiveness. For instance, in 2018, the Intelligence Community Inspector General issued a report on FOIA processing within all IC components. The lack of secure electronic connectivity among some IC components led to lengthy processing delays and other inefficiencies. The NDC also lacks secure connectivity, and we believe including a metric to fund and install Top Secret connectivity with equity-owning agencies would be a small step that would make a significant process improvement. It might also enable the use of advanced technological tools to further reduce processing delays.

Finally, we believe that this metric should be expanded to include Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests. A main difference between FOIA and MDR requests is that MDR may only be used to request public access to records that are classified. Therefore, they often require referral to equity-owning agencies. MDR requests also tend to be for specific classified records rather than for large volumes of records. Still, agencies are often unable to complete referral reviews within the one-year time allotment. MDR is also the only option for certain Presidential materials created before the Presidential Records Act took effect in 1981 and classified Congressional committee records. These records are often of great historical interest, yet they are rarely processed timely.

The PIDB urges NARA to adopt forward-leaning goals and objectives that permit greater access to historically significant and high-value classified records, and plan for the adoption of advanced technologies that will permit and improve public access to large volumes of electronic records. Our comments align with NARA’s proposed strategic goals to “Make Access Happen,” “Connect with Customers,” and “Maximize NARA’s Value to the Nation.” We believe including goals and metrics that support electronic information management the use of advanced technologies to support declassification reviews will prepare NARA to be the leader it needs to be in the future to ensure a transparent and accountable government for the American people.

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