Declassification as a Confidence-Building Measure

12.16.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In order to restore public trust, the U.S. intelligence community ought to be “aggressive” about reducing classification, former intelligence officials said last week.

Secrecy “is an enormous problem,” said Michael Leiter, who directed the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011. “I hope the DNI is very aggressive about moving towards less classification and more effective security clearances.”

He didn’t specify what information he thought should cease to be classified, or exactly how a policy of less classification should be implemented. But he said that current secrecy policies have eroded public confidence.

“I think what Snowden has really illustrated better than anything else is [that] the trust that we need to have in a democratic society between those elements which should remain secret and its public is broken,” Mr. Leiter said. He spoke at a December 11 program on The Current State of Intelligence Reform held at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“We struck a balance basically in the early 70s — with the FISA Court, Church-Pike– that has broken down,” he said. “And we no longer trust that the HPSCI, or the SSCI, or the FISA Court as its currently constructed or the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board or the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board– people don’t know those names, they don’t know those acronyms, and they don’t trust the US intelligence Community because people don’t believe those organizations are conducting the oversight they should.”

“So I hope out of this Snowden affair we end up with a new modern form of oversight which provides the trust that we need to do the things that have to remain secret,” he said.

Michael Allen, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, defended congressional oversight and said that criticism of the quality of intelligence oversight masked a policy disagreement.

“I think Congress has been working better in these respects in the past few years,” he said.

“The reason I think you see some potshots about congressional oversight as related to the Snowden matter is because Congress knew about the [bulk collection] programs and people who don’t like the programs are mad at Congress for going along with them in the first place. So they assault congressional oversight writ large, when they’re really making a policy judgment that they don’t support the underlying programs, and they’re casting aspersions against anyone who might have known or been comfortable with them,” he said.

But Mr. Allen agreed that the intelligence community needed to provide the public with more insight into its activities and with more access to its products.

“I think for the intelligence community to be able to survive and [for] many of the collection programs to be able to be successful, the intelligence community has got to rethink its declassification policy,” he said.

The IC should “consider trying to put out more examples of where its collection programs have been successful in order to fight for the authorities to keep them.” Likewise, it “might consider putting out more of its analysis so that a broader swath of people can have an appreciation for what they [intelligence agencies] do,” Mr. Allen said.

While there has been significant declassification of records concerning NSA surveillance programs, a comparable reassessment of intelligence classification policy in other topical areas remains to be accomplished.

As for public disclosure of other intelligence analysis, that currently seems remote. The ODNI Open Source Center stubbornly refuses to release even unclassified, uncopyrighted products that it generates (though some do leak from time to time).

In fact, current trends point in the opposite direction, towards reduced disclosure.  Later this month the Open Source Center, which is managed by CIA, will terminate longstanding public access to translations of foreign news reports which have long been available (to paid subscribers) through the NTIS World News Connection.

Last week, the Obama Administration argued in court that the CIA should not be obliged to publicly release a 30 year old draft history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs episode.