On January 27, 2023, the PIDB held a 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. The conference consisted of three sessions and included five panels.
To start off the day, Panel 1: Scholars and Documents: A Complicated Relationship, was moderated by Aaron O’Connell, Director of Research at the Clements Center for National Security.
Jim Goldgeier, Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and Chair for the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, spoke about US-Russia historical relations. Mr. Goldgeier echoed the views on over-classification that DNI Avril Haines expressed during her keynote.
Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the importance of declassification for the United States to understand contemporaneous thinking and relationships as they develop. He stated that declassification can play an important role: (1) to understand why decision makers do what they do, (2) to understand a foreign government’s relationship with the United States and the larger policy stakes we operate in, and (3) to hold leaders accountable by informing the public about how our policy is made, showing whether they make informed judgments, and disempowering those who want to use government secrecy as a weapon.
Sheena Greitens, Founding Director of the Asia Policy Program at the University of Texas at Austin, suggested that we use declassification to understand foreign policy and American democracy. She stated that to understand policy we need to understand the internal workings of the government .
Moderated by Adam Klein, Director of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, Panel 2: Is Technology the Problem or the Solution?, finished Section I of the conference.
Ezra Cohen, PIDB Member and former PIDB Chair, as well as the former Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, started the panel by highlighting the challenge with blanket classification of emails because people do not go through the emails line-by-line to make a proper classification. He then mentioned the high cost to store and subsequently release the documents to the public.
Ivan Lee, Founder & CEO of Datasaur.ai, believes that future declassification technology should be used like spell check—it should assist with classification, but cannot be an end-all-be-all solution. Despite being a technologist, Mr. Lee emphasized that humans need to be involved in final classification decisions, and that humans cannot over-rely on technology to classify and declassify.
Jared Abrams, Research Associate at Applied Research Laboratories, had similar sentiments to Mr. Lee’s. Mr. Abrams noted that there needs to be balance between humans and technology such that humans should be comfortable overriding computer suggestions, but occasionally let computers make decisions.
Even though he believes there is overclassification, Alex Joel, Senior Project Director and Adjunct Professor at the Washington College of Law at American University, stated that humans must accept that some secrets must be kept and certain old documents need to be classified, such as when a source or a source’s family is still alive.
When asked if there would ever be a document review done with no human involvement, the panelists said they did not believe this would be possible in the near future.
Session II started with Panel 3: The Future of Presidential Libraries, moderated by Paul-Noel Chretien, PIDB Member and retired Central Intelligence Agency officer.
Mark Lawrence, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, discussed the shortage of resources for declassification, including the staff working with classified materials and processing mandatory review requests. He mentioned that the complexity of declassification increases as time passes because the easier declassifications—straightforward single-entity, routine processing, or early declassification requests—have already been done. What is left for the staff are the declassifications that involve multiple agency equities, very complicated subject matter, very high sensitivity, or special handling.
Warren Finch, Former Director of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, continued the discussion by agreeing with Mr. Lawrence and highlighting additional problems the George H.W. Bush library faced. The administrative push to consolidate documents from the presidential libraries to the Washington, D.C. area resulted in the library trying to declassify as much as possible in an effort to relocate the smallest number of classified documents. Mr. Finch emphasized that he is most concerned about losing the great knowledge of existing archivists and the shrinking of resources, and not the quality of the archivists’ work.
Tim Naftali, Clinical Associate Professor of History and Public Policy at New York University, started by pointing out an issue that does not get much attention: the failure to declassify documents makes it impossible to remove a document or digital file from the classified space, where it must be protected, which causes for individual researchers. Mr. Naftali addressed the declassification process, which consists of processing, formal declassification, and release. To access a record, the researcher must know that this record exists and that the record has been withdrawn from an open file in a research room, something that is difficult to know when there is over-classification.
Matthew Connelly, Professor of History at Columbia University and Principal Investigator at History Lab, followed up with a brief history of the presidential libraries.
When asked by Mr. Chretien how to prioritize what to declassify, the panelists pointed out that the National Archives declassifies records the public wants to see, but there are many records that even researchers do not know exist, so the policy should not be to leave it to researchers to ask for documents to declassify.
To start Session III, Ben Powell, PIDB member and former DNI General Counsel, moderated Panel 4: The Media, Secrecy and Transparency.
Adam Goldman of the New York Times described himself as a passive recipient of information, because he only gets information people offer to him because they think the public needs to know the information. Mr. Goldman’s publication process consists of three questions: (1) is it newsworthy, (2) should the public know about it, and (3) is there a reason not to publish the information.
Josh Gerstein of Politico mentioned that he uses Presidential Libraries because sometimes old news becomes new. As an example, Mr. Gerstein cited how information from the William J. Clinton library became relevant after many years when his wife, Hillary Clinton, ran for President in 2016.
Dustin Volz of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that partially disclosed information can be misleading and that he looks for bias, and agenda in his sources. He also highlighted that he does not consider whether or not information is already available to the public in publishing a story.
Nomaan Merchant of the Associated Press mentioned the potential consequences of reporting. Using the invasion of Ukraine as an example, Mr. Merchant noted that a reporter can put someone in danger and that reporters who disclose potentially harmful information take steps to protect people during the disclosure.
The conference finished with Panel 5: The View from Government Historians and Archivists, moderated by Carter Burwell, PIDB member.
Adam Howard, Director of the Office of the Historian at U.S. Department of State, highlighted that, in addition to the more well-known Freedom of Information Act and Mandatory Declassification Review, documents can also be declassified under the Foreign Relations of the U.S. Series if they relate to how the United States conducts foreign policy. Mr. Howard’s priorities for the classification and declassification systems involve a cohesion of interagency technology, incentivization for declassification, and agent education.
John Fox, Historian at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, stated that after leaks and exposures of government agency activities in the 1960s and 70s, the nature of how the FBI dealt with records with regard to the public began to change. He noted that it is hard to find remaining classified records of great public interest because almost all of these documents have already been released due to a congressional mandate.
Erin Mahan, Chief Historian at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, wants the rewrite of Executive Order 13526 to incorporate the work of historians and records managers, because historians often know where to look for information and what information is likely to be important .
Overall, the panelists expressed the view that institutional history can be used for policymakers to understand how predecessors organized elements within the agency and handled structural issues. .