Declass Board Tells Obama Openness is “At Risk”

03.24.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In a new letter to President Obama, the Public Interest Declassification Board warned that reliable public access to government information, the very foundation of representative democracy, may be in jeopardy.

Although “our Board was heartened by your early statements and actions on openness in Government,” wrote Board acting chairman Martin Faga to the President on March 6, “we have to sound a note of alarm about how well the Government is doing in this area.”

“In fact, we have concluded that this fundamental principle of self-government” — that is, citizen access to information about Government — “is at risk and, without decisive action, the situation is likely to worsen.”

The Public Interest Declassification Board was established by Congress in 2000 to advise the president on declassification policy and practice.  Board members are appointed by the White House and Congress.

Mr. Faga, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, identified several structural and procedural factors that he said impede declassification, including inadequate resources, coordination and leadership, as well as poor management of digital records.  “Future historians may find that the paper records of early American history provide a more reliable historical account than the inchoate mass of digital communications of the current era.”

Although the Board’s mission focuses on declassification of historical records, the Board has also taken an interest in classification policy and has called for a revision to the executive order on classification.

“Serious attention to the classification process itself is needed to ensure that it supports declassification and to address the particularly challenging and long-standing issue of over-classification,” the Board’s letter said.

A presidential directive initiating a revision of the executive order on classification policy is believed to be imminent.