In a long-awaited report to the President, the Public Interest Declassification Board urged the White House to take the lead in fixing the national secrecy system.
The Public Interest Declassification Board is an advisory committee that was established by Congress to help promote possible access to the documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities. In 2009, President Obama asked the Board to develop recommendations for “a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system.”
“The current classification and declassification systems are outdated,” wrote Board chair Amb. Nancy Soderberg in a November 27 transmittal letter to the President. “We believe it will require a White House-led steering committee to drive reform, led by a chair that is carefully selected and appointed with specific authorities that you grant.”
At the executive branch agency level, “there is little recognition among Government practitioners that there is a fundamental problem,” Amb. Soderberg told the President. “Clearly, it will require a Presidential mandate to energize and direct agencies to work together to reform the classification system.”
This is a crucial point. Left to their own devices, agencies will not fundamentally alter the classification practices that are the entrenched legacy of over half a century. Future progress in secrecy reform will require agencies to surrender some of the discretion in classification and declassification activity that they have long enjoyed. But this is unlikely to happen without presidential intervention and direction.
“We hope that our recommendations will serve as a catalyst for discussions and deliberations within the government,” Amb. Soderberg said at a public meeting this morning.
The new report on Transforming the Security Classification System is available here.
Some of the Board’s specific recommendations are naturally subject to debate. A proposal to reduce the current three-level classification system to two levels was previously recommended by the Joint Security Commission in 1994 but was ultimately abandoned as unworkable. A proposal to base classification decisions on the degree of protection required for information rather than on the damage that might result from its disclosure is a subtle change that may be worth considering — although a judgment about the degree of protection required would seem to involve an implicit judgment about the damage from disclosure.
But these are quibbles in comparison to the principal PIDB recommendation in favor of presidential leadership of secrecy reform, and establishment of a presidentially-led steering committee to execute needed changes throughout the government.
“The classification system must be modernized as a dynamic, easily understood and mission-enabling system and one that deters over-classification and encourages accessibility,” the Board wrote in its report. “This will require a coordinated effort across Government beginning with an interagency process led by the White House.”