Today, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) posts responses to questions received by at the virtual public meeting on Thursday, March 30. To see the video of that meeting, please visit NARA’s YouTube Channel, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W4EFWTMx2w.
Thank you for your questions and comments. The PIDB looks forward to continuing the public discussion of important issues in reforming the secrecy system of the Federal government.
Questions and Answers
- Kennedy Assassination Records –
Q: Why aren’t all the documents [related to the Kennedy assassination] declassified?
A: We agree that too many records and too much information has been withheld from the public. The law governing these records is quite clear and the standard for exempting information is much higher than required by Executive Order 13526. This law also specifies that it trumps other laws that would normally be used to exempt information. This includes the National Security Act, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and the Atomic Energy Act.
We believe agencies have not applied the high standard required. We wrote President Biden last year and were pleased when he directed agencies to 1) follow the Act and 2) included the National Archives and the DNI in oversight roles with the ability to object to agency decisions.
We are keeping close watch. We’ve noticed that new information in about 3,000 records have been declassified in the past few months. We think the vast majority of the 10,000 remaining records should be declassified and released.
- New Executive Order (E.O.)
Q: Recently, the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines wrote a letter to Senators Ron Wyden and Jerry Moran and stated that “deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security.” What is the board’s view on this statement?
A: We agree. Too much information is classified. Over-classification harms our democracy and it harms our national security. The PIDB has written about this in three reports to the President – including our most recent report, A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization of the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System. We must adopt new policies that improve information sharing, maintain decision advantage, use tax dollars wisely, and permit innovation to flourish.
We look forward to engaging with her office and other agencies to help modernize the classification system.
- New E.O.
Q: Do you see classification and declassification policy as a policy area where bipartisanship work can be achieved, or are there divergent views in philosophy or goals?
A: We see this as a non-partisan issue. We’ve heard from legislators of both parties, of senior government officials in different administrations – changes are necessary.
- New E.O.
Q: Does the PIDB see artificial intelligence, machines and technology performing declassification review? What about mistakes?
A: Ultimately, yes, we do. We’ve learned two lessons from speaking with stakeholders – including declassification professionals.
First, current processes cannot keep pace with the volume of records requiring review. FOIA backlogs and Mandatory Declassification Review backlogs are too large. As an example, we’ve heard that the FOIA backlog for records at the George W. Bush Presidential Library will take a generation to process. That is not acceptable in our democracy.
Second, current processes are ineffective. We’ve learned from the National Security Archive and others that declassification decisions vary – even on the same record where one reviewer redacts information but another reviewer within the same agency, not knowing what the other reviewer decided, declassifies the same information. As the volume of records grows greater – and email threads get larger and include many recipients, we expect the error rate to go up.
The application and use of advanced technologies to search, sort, aid public access review is critical in our digital age.
Lastly, we also think a new construct is needed – one that also aligns with what the DNI said recently. The definition of ‘harm’ used to justify classification decisions should be changed. Instead, the Government should require an evaluation of “risk” – and we’ve seen several recent examples where the Executive branch is using that standard in deciding what information to publicly detail regarding Russian activities in Ukraine.
- New E.O.
Q: How will the Government decide what should be prioritized for declassification? What about declassification reviews that are required by Statute – like the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States series?
A: Prioritization should be part of a new Executive order that delays some automatic declassification reviews beyond 25 years while requiring word-for-word reviews of historically significant records, including those that are required to be reviewed by statute. There should be discussions on how such a delay and such an expedited review could work – as well as what impact the use of advanced technologies could have on both.
Public Comment Submitted to PIDB:
The most important recommendation for the E.O. should be that automatic/systematic declassification has to use redaction, not pass-fail, for very high-level records (e.g. SecDef and Deputy SecDef). However, because redaction takes so much more time than pass-fail, the agencies will have to receive delays in the automatic declassification dates for the much more voluminous lower-level records (e.g. ASD/Health and Medical, ASD Administration, and ASD/Comptroller).
- Marshall Islands Declassification Feasibility Study
Q: What information is the Government hiding? There are thousands of people who were exposed to radiation from these tests, including soldiers who had to clean up in the 1970s. I think all information should be available.
A: Thank you for that question and comment. We are not experts in the areas of nuclear weapons, testing, clean-up, and nuclear physics. We are learning about these issues through virtual meetings with stakeholders.
Our staff has held over thirty meetings to date – and conducted research into the status and locations of records. And there are more meetings scheduled.
Although our feasibility study will be at a high-level – and we will not review individual records, we realize that these records are important to the Marshallese – especially those who were exposed to radiation; they are important to U.S. servicemen who were exposed.
But we are realizing that such a project will be complicated – declassified records are located around the country – some at the National Archives, some in several different Presidential Libraries, some are in other Government archives or reference libraries, some are at the National Labs, and many are online on different websites. It’s been a challenge to learn what has been declassified and what has not. Some records may be declassified – but are restricted from public access for medical privacy or other privacy information.
There is much more work ahead – and we are doing our best within the time frame we’ve been given.
- 9/11 Records and JFK Records
Q: When are we going to learn who was responsible for financing the hijackers? And is the Government making headway in declassifying the Kennedy Assassination records?
A: Last year we wrote the President about the importance of prioritizing the declassification review of the records of the 9/11 Commission, including specifically several interviews and intelligence records. We were pleased when President Biden signed Executive Order 14040 – and it is our understanding that agencies are actively reviewing information for declassification. Like the Kennedy assassination records collection, the information subject to this order is scheduled for release by the end of the year.
We will continue to advocate for maximum transparency and public access.
- Over-classification of U.S. Space Operations
Q: Over the past two years and more, prominent Defense Depart ment officials – including the current commander of U.S. Space Force Command Gen. John Raymond, and the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten – have complained about the over-classification of information about U.S. operations in outer space. Has the PIDB done anything to engage with these officials to better understand the issue of “over-classification”? And could the PIDB do anything to address their complaints?
A: The PIDB is very much aware of comments by Department of Defense (DoD) officials about their concern for the over-classification of information about U.S. operations in space. We share their concern about over-classification in space, as well as across the entire executive branch. In fact, we have reached out to current and former DoD officials to engage in dialogue about their experience, perspectives, and ideas about the issue of over-classification. We plan to hear briefings from some of them later this year in PIDB executive sessions and will incorporate what we learn in our future activities.
- Release of Information on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Q: Since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the Biden Administration seems to have consistently released information ahead of Russian operations without disclosing U.S. intelligence sources and methods. Is this unique to the crisis in Ukraine, or does this kind of public release of sensitive information about foreign adversaries offer a good example for the declassification of historically significant records?
Yes, in the days leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and since, the current administration appears to have been particularly effective in undermining Russian deception by reporting information that has been verified by many sources – including open sources that are commercially available to the public. In some examples these may also illustrate the disclosure of classified information by discretionary declassification, which certainly is allowed under E.O. 13526 – and which PIDB reports have previously advocated as potentially appropriate for the declassification of historically significant information. However, there is a big difference in the PIDB’s mandate to support the prioritization and release of historically significant records, and the legal discretion of the President to release information about current events.