On January 27, 2023, Senator John Cornyn gave the keynote address on “Declassification, Transparency, and the Importance of Section 702” at 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), along with the Clements Center for National Security, Strauss Center for International Security and Law, the Clements-Strauss Intelligence Studies Project, The LBJ Library, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Will Inboden, Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security, facilitated the conversation.
Senator Cornyn is a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee’s mission is to oversee the country’s intelligence activities and programs, helping build confidence with the public and Congress that those activities are consistent with the Constitution and U.S. law. Senator Cornyn is also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over government transparency laws, including the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In his remarks, Senator Cornyn indicated that the American people have a right to know government information, but there are important matters that need to be handled secretly and therefore must be classified. Although four million Americans have some level of security clearance, he emphasized that security clearances have many levels and most information is shared on a need-to-know basis. He stated that we must keep our most critical information secret, pointing out that secrecy was necessary for the government to preserve the lives of our sources, which could be jeopardized if their identities became public.
According to Senator Cornyn, Intelligence Community (IC) officials are “truth tellers” who tell policy makers the neutral truth. The role of policy makers, who are accountable to the American people, is to decide what to do with this information in terms of making policy. He believes it is important that representatives of the American public have oversight of the IC because it will build public confidence that intelligence activities are not being used for improper purposes .
Regarding policy changes, Senator Cornyn highlighted that the PIDB’s recommendations have “sat on the shelf” and not made their way into public policy, which he would like to see. He wants the IC not to overclassify information and, once there is no longer a need for the information to be classified, to make information available to the public. He also briefly mentioned that the volume of classified information has made it impossible for human declassification and suggested that technology, particularly artificial intelligence, might be a solution.
Touching on current events, Senator Cornyn stated that the United States’ proactive declassification of Russian intelligence to aid Ukraine during the invasion was “an example of where [declassification] can have meaningful and direct impact on success or failure on the battlefield.” To illustrate this point, he mentioned that Ukraine had been highly effective in identifying Russia targets with the use of American intelligence, something that Ukraine did not have the capacity to do on its own.
Lastly, Senator Cornyn discussed Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 702 of the Act has been used to collect intelligence for detecting potential terrorist attacks. The law uses tools to gain intelligence on foreign actors and threats and is set to expire at the end of this year. Senator Cornyn explained that Congress is concerned about abuse of the law, which has resulted in skepticism of reauthorization. Senator Cornyn believes this is due to lack of understanding about the benefits of the tool and that this skepticism could be addressed by educating the policy makers and the public on the “success stories” coming from intelligence gathered under the authority of Section 702. For this to happen, the success stories need to be declassified. The declassification of this information will show the importance of the statute and will reassure Congress that the tools will not be abused and, if they are abused, people will be held accountable. Senator Cornyn noted that adding reforms to the classification and declassification process might help to encourage Congress to reauthorize this important foreign surveillance authority.