White House pressed to fix ‘broken’ declassification system

The Public Interest Declassification Board wants high-level attention to address ever-increasing shortcomings in the way agencies classify and declassify docume...

Nearly a year after sending its report to President Barack Obama on improving the security classification system, the Public Interest Declassification Board finally met with White House officials to discuss it.

Nancy Soderberg, the chairwoman of the board, said the goal of Thursday’s meeting was simple — get the White House to implement the report’s 14 recommendations to improve how agencies classify and declassify information.

“We are committed to first and foremost driving our report through the bureaucracy,” Soderberg said at the board’s first meeting since April. “All of us feel, unless the White House is involved to drive some of these issues, the bureaucracy tends to get dragged down. We are very focused on trying to get the formally restricted data, and the formally, formally restricted data out of the box that it’s stuck in. It’s our view that needs to be reviewed. If we get that reviewed, much more of it will be in the public domain.”

Soderberg said the board met Thursday with Lisa Monaco, the White House’s deputy national security adviser.

“My understanding through talking to them is they have read the report, set up an interagency review and will hopefully act on some of them,” Soderberg said. “They put Lisa in charge and she’s very high level so that’s good.”

The board and others in the records management community say the current system is broken and isn’t keeping up with the deluge of electronic records coming from agencies.

“The PIDB has provided the President with a thoughtful report, and Ms. Monaco is leading an interagency review of its recommendations, including how to develop the implementation strategy to reform the national security classification system,” said Laura Magnuson, the National Security Council Assistant Press Secretary, in an email to Federal News Radio. “We look forward to continued dialogue with the board.”

Many requirements, fewer resources

The CIA, for example, is considered a leader in records management, but it’s facing almost 12 million pages to review in 2012, up from 2 million pages in 2007.

“When considering electronic records, my 10-to-12 million pages a year may be moved to 100-to-150 million pages a year to review,” said Joseph Lambert, the CIA’s director of information management services, during an open meeting of the board in Washington Thursday. “The key thing here as this volume increases in the 25-year program and coupled with other statutory review activities … there’s going to be fewer and fewer resources available for the historical and systematic resources.”

Obama created the 25-year program as part of Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” where the Archivist will oversee a process to ensure the release of historical records that are 25-years or older. The mandate set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2013 for agencies to address how document referrals happen and any quality assurance issues.

Soderberg and other board members believe their recommendations will help move the government in a direction that will help deal with the ever-growing collection of records.

Along with the committee to drive declassification reform, Soderberg said the board believes there are three other areas that need immediate attention.

“The need for a systematic and regular process to review obsolete formally restricted data for declassification. Third, [we want] to have declassification prioritization in the declassification center, presidential libraries and within agency declassification programs,” she said. “And then we also are looking for some pilot programs with technologies. Given the digital age, the current system cannot keep up without efficient use of innovative technology.”

To prioritize or not to

Another big issue the board wants the White House to address is whether agencies should prioritize certain types of records to be declassified first. There is some disagreement over whether prioritization makes sense.

On one hand, board members say prioritization is helpful, especially when working with presidential libraries, to focus on specific records.

“By thinking about what electronic records are going to mean, there is great and understandable concern about the huge flow that we’re going to see. But there also are opportunities,” said Marty Faga, a member of the board and a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office. “Once most records are electronic, it will be possible to search them, and eliminate duplication, for example. Importantly for the prioritization problem, as I see it, it will be possible to index them. If there are millions of documents that nobody ever asks for, and I think that will happen, why should we spend any effort on it?”

But Michael Dobbs, a journalist and scholar-in-resident at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said prioritization tends to miss documents that may have historical significance, but aren’t obvious today.

“At best it is a short term fix and the real problems are rather deeper than just prioritization,” Dobbs said.

He said the volume of data and the lack of advanced technology to help analyze the documents needs to be addressed.

Beyond the report and the White House’s efforts, the board is asking for help from agencies, academia and other experts through a series of blog posts over the next few months.

John Powers, a staff member for the Declassification Board, said the blogs will address four main issues:

  • What documents should the government declassify and prioritize that are older than 25 years?
  • What documents should the government declassify and prioritize that are less than 25 years old?
  • What presidential library documents should be prioritized and made available?
  • How should the board deal with the declassification of obsolete nuclear information and other formally restricted data?

Powers said new blogs will post each Monday through Dec. 16, and the board will accept comments through mid-January.

David Ferriero, the archivist of the U.S., said the National Declassification Center has made progress in decreasing the backlog. He said it has been eliminating the backlog of 354 million pages waiting for declassification review. The NDC reported in August it had completed equity referral quality assurance on 278 million pages, and completed all processing of more than 118 million pages of this backlog.

“Still there is more work ahead as our government must find ways to use technology to improve and increase declassification,” Ferriero said. “As we eliminate the current backlog, we want to make sure new backlogs don’t build up.”

Codifying recommendations

The chance of another backlog is likely if laws and regulations don’t change soon, experts say.

Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) said one intelligence agency alone creates one petabyte of data every 18 months, which is the equivalent of roughly 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text. The board estimates it would take 2 million employees a full year to review 1 petabyte of information.

Additionally, she says the cost of classifying these documents increased to more than $11 billion in 2011, up from $4.6 billion in 2001.

Shaheen and Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced legislation in August to codify many of the board’s recommendations, including directing the relevant agencies to automatically declassify information already identified with short-term sensitivity and enhance the National Declassification Center, which is charged with streamlining and overseeing the declassification process, through technology upgrades and public participation.

“Our objective was simple. Reduce the volume and scope of what’s classified and accelerate declassification,” she said. “So basically what the board recommended.”

Preserving American Access to Information Act, S. 1464, hasn’t made it out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yet.


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