On January 26, 2023, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gave the keynote address launching the conference on “America’s Secrets: Classified Information and Our Democracy” at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum (The LBJ Library), in Austin, Texas. The conference was co-sponsored by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), with The Clements Center for National Security, Strauss Center for International Security and Law, the Clements-Strauss Intelligence Studies Project, the LBJ Presidential Library, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The PIDB’s Acting Chair Alissa Starzak introduced DNI Haines.
Identifying concerns similar to those raised by the PIDB, Ms. Haines spoke about overclassification, saying that it “undermines critical democratic objectives such as increasing transparency to promote an informed citizenry and greater accountability… undermines the basic trust the public has in its government… [and] negatively impacts national security because it increases the challenges associated with sharing information that should not be classified or at least not classified at the level the information is classified at.”
Ms. Haines also highlighted the negative impact of overclassification in particular areas where information sharing is critical to national security, such as the war in Ukraine, space, and cybersecurity. Regarding policy making, Ms. Haines noted that overclassification “undermines our capacity to effectively support senior policy decision-making to rapidly share and disclose information to allies, partners, and the public,” but noted that certain things must be kept secret such as military tactics, military weapons employed, and our sources.
Ms. Haines then addressed the declassification system, emphasizing the small number of people, money, and subject matter expertise for declassification, as well as how much declassification remains to be done. She pointed out the lack of incentives to declassify, the lack of education about the classification process, and the fact that the declassification process is more complicated than the classification process.
Ms. Haines described the importance of continuing to develop a process for appropriate classification and minimizing what is classified as an initial matter, with the objective of facilitating sharing and disclosure when possible for a better public debate, accountability, trust, and support for partners and allies.
Ms. Haines concluded her talk with a list of improvements that can be made to the declassification system. Her recommendations echoed recommendations the PIDB has long supported:
- Expanding employee education;
- Decreasing FOIA backlogs, increasing staffing, developing and implementing institutionalized records and FOIA training;
- Investing in technology that can help decrease the amount of human resources needed for declassification;
- Using IT infrastructure to help accomplish broader objectives;
- Working on mechanisms to properly prioritize the disclosure of information of high public interest.
Ms. Haines then sat down for a fireside chat with Adam Klein, Director of the Center of International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin.
Ms. Haines and Mr. Klein discussed the proactive declassification of in regarding Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine and the impact of that declassification. They also discussed whether there was a role for affirmative declassification of intelligence related to the potential threat of China invading Taiwan. Ms. Haines and Mr. Klein briefly discussed other challenges related to China, including the U.S. government’s views of TikTok .
Finally, Ms. Haines talked about how declassification is a bipartisan issue and how politicization makes it more challenging for her to do her job. She highlighted the concern that politicization could lead to public distrust of information, including important security warnings, which could in turn lead to less effective national security. As a leader who speaks with individuals across the political spectrum, she believes it is very important to show the public that declassification is about good government, not politics. Ms. Haines noted that government transparency will increase public trust in the government and that government transparency is an opportunity for public discussion.
For a video of DNI Haines’ keynote address to the conference on “America’s Secrets: Classified Secrets and Our Democracy,” introduced by PIDB Acting Chair Alissa Starzak, see The LBJ Library’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@TheLBJLibrary.