Hayden Named to Public Interest Declass Board

09.10.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

If one were searching for an individual to represent the public interest in promoting declassification of government records, the first name that came to mind would probably not be Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.  But improbable as it may seem, he is the latest appointee to the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), an official body that advises the President on declassification policies, priorities and potential reforms.

General Hayden’s appointment to the PIDB by Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was revealed in the September 8 Congressional Record.

A professional background in national security matters is of course not a disqualification for participation in classification policy debates (and several former intelligence community officials are already represented on the nine-member PIDB).  In fact, such professionals often possess an unusually clear understanding of the specific failings of the classification system and of the urgency of correcting it.  Few if any outside critics have developed a more severe critique of the classification system than J. William Leonard, for example, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, who has called for a ninety percent reduction in classification activity.

But General Hayden is not well known as a classification critic or a proponent of declassification.  As NSA and CIA Director he was integral to the practice of classification in its latest and most decadent phase.  When the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan conceived of a Public Interest Declassification Board a decade ago, he would not have imagined that the national security classification system might be employed by a present-day U.S. Administration to help circumvent laws against warrantless surveillance or torture.  And yet here we are.

In fairness, Gen. Hayden has not been blind to classification abuse.  “I do think we overclassify,” he told Sen. Ron Wyden at his May 18, 2006 confirmation hearing, “and I think it’s because we’ve got bad habits.”  (They are depraved, so we are deprived.)

And in a June 2007 speech to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Gen. Hayden celebrated CIA’s declassification activities.  “In our robust democracy, people want and deserve to know more about the government agencies they pay for and that exist to serve them, even the secret ones. We work for and serve the interests of the American people. When the protection of information is no longer required, we owe it to our fellow citizens to disclose that information,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Public Interest Declassification Board that General Hayden will now join is poised to play an increasingly significant role.  In a September 2 letter (pdf) to Patrice McDermott of Openthegovernment.org, National Security Advisor Gen. James L. Jones said that he intended to task the Board to help develop a substantially new classification system, once the more limited changes to the current executive order on classification are finalized.

“As soon as we complete our revision of the existing Order, I plan to begin discussions with the Board about a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system,” Gen. Jones wrote.