How can the national security classification and declassification system be fixed?
That depends on how one defines the problem that needs fixing. To the authors of a new report from the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), the outstanding problem is the difficulty of managing the expanding volume of classified information and declassifying a growing backlog of records.
“There is widespread, bipartisan recognition that the Government classifies too much information and keeps it classified for too long, all at an exorbitant and unacceptable cost to taxpayers,” said the PIDB, a presidential advisory board. Meanwhile, “Inadequate declassification contributes to an overall lack of transparency and diminished confidence in the entire security classification system.”
The solution to this problem is to employ technology to improve the efficiency of the classification and declassification processes, the PIDB said.
“The time is ripe for envisioning a new approach to classification and declassification, before the accelerating influx of classified electronic information across the Government becomes completely unmanageable,” the report said. “The Government needs a paradigm shift, one centered on the adoption of technologies and policies to support an enterprise-level, system-of-systems approach.”
See A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernization of the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System, Public Interest Declassification Board, May 2020.
The report’s diagnosis is not new and neither is its call for employing new technology to improve classification and declassification. The PIDB itself made similar recommendations in a 2007 report.
Recognizing the persistent lack of progress to date, the new report therefore calls for the appointment of an Executive Agent who would have the authority and responsibility for designing and implementing a newly transformed classification system. (The Director of National Intelligence, who is already Security Executive Agent for security clearance policy, would be a likely choice.)
Those who care enough about these issues to read the PIDB report will find lots of interesting commentary along with plenty to doubt or disagree with. For example, in my opinion:
* The useful idea of appointing an Executive Agent is diminished by making him or her part of an Executive Committee of agency leaders. The whole point of creating a “czar”-like Executive Agent is to reduce the friction of collective decision making and to break through the interagency impasse. An Executive Committee would make that more difficult.
* The PIDB report would oddly elevate the Archivist of the United States, who is not even an Original Classification Authority, into a central role “in modernizing the systems used across agencies for the management of classified records.” That doesn’t make much sense. (An official said the intended purpose here was merely to advance the mission of the Archives in preserving historical records.)
* The report equivocates on the pivotal question of whether or not (or for how long) agencies should retain “equity” in, or ownership of, the records they produce.
* The report does not address resource issues in a concrete way. How much money should be invested today to develop the recommended technologies in order to reap savings five and ten years from now? It doesn’t say. Who should supply the classified connectivity among classifying agencies that the report says is needed? Exactly which agency should request the required funding in next year’s budget request? That is not discussed, and so in all likelihood it is not going to happen.
But the hardest, most stubborn problem in classification policy has nothing to do with efficiency or productivity. What needs updating and correcting, rather, are the criteria for determining what is properly classified and what must be disclosed. And since there is disagreement inside and outside government about many specific classification actions — e.g., should the number of US troops in Afghanistan be revealed or not? — a new mechanism is needed to adjudicate such disputes. This fundamental issue is beyond the scope of the PIDB report.
The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a virtual public meeting on June 5 at 11 am.
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