Improving Declassification: Not Yet
A new report on improving declassification procedures in the U.S. intelligence community implicitly suggests that no such improvements are likely to emerge any time soon.
The report, published yesterday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to congressional direction, is largely devoid of new ideas and instead calls for greater “integration” and “coordination.”
“Improving the declassification process across the Community will require an integrated and multifaceted set of initiatives fully coordinated with organizations that have AD [automatic declassification] programs. No single step will suffice in addressing satisfactorily the areas for improvement that have been identified in this report.”
See Improving the Intelligence Community’s Declassification Process and the Community’s Support to the National Declassification Center, ODNI, December 2016.
The core of the report is in a section entitled “Proposals to Improve the IC’s Declassification Process.” But it does not actually present any declassification policy proposals. Instead, in a near-parody of a government report, it calls for establishment of new working groups to write other reports and generate further recommendations.
Thus, the “Proposal on Process” calls for “a Declassification Improvement Working Group (DIWG) to conduct a zero‐based study of the IC’s AD process and prepare a report–by a specified deadline– that includes recommended actions to increase the program’s effectiveness and efficiency across the Community.”
The “Proposal on Electronic Records” says that “A joint task force […] should be formed to aggressively pursue the identification, development, and validation of technological capabilities — tools and infrastructure — for incorporation in the AD [automatic declassification] process.” (Aggressively!)
This is not helpful. In fact, it is practically a declaration of helplessness.
The new report is lacking in specific actionable proposals that could be evaluated, debated, perhaps modified and ultimately adopted in practice. It does not ask or answer any penetrating questions. Such as:
* What if agency “equity” in older records, requiring review by those agencies, simply lapsed at some point in time, eliminating the need for such review?
* What if certain defunct intelligence compartments could be altogether excused from multi-agency referral and review?
* What if a fixed fraction of agency information security expenditures were routinely and predictably allocated to performing declassification?
* What if new metrics could be devised to measure the success of declassification programs based on requester demand and disclosure impact, not just on number of pages processed?
* Fundamentally, what if intelligence community tolerance for risk were recalibrated to facilitate more expeditious declassification of both current and historically valuable records?
Interestingly, the report notes that agencies favor numerous revisions to President Obama’s executive order 13526 on classification policy, so that “updating the E.O. will be a major undertaking.”
But those revisions mainly seem geared toward relaxing existing declassification requirements, not strengthening them. So, for example, IC officials believe they could place increased emphasis on declassifying historical records of broad public interest if they could be assured that other records of lesser interest would not be automatically declassified as they become 25 years old, as the Obama order nominally directs.
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