David S. Ferriero 2014-02-11 11:13:30
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, one of his first orders to staff was to create a more open government. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government,” he said. “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.” A key component of his openness initiative involves access to government records, including national security information. In December 2009, the president issued an executive order that made the National Archives and Records Administration the lead agency in carrying out his reforms. First, he asked that the nearly 400-millionpage backlog of classified documents be reviewed by December 31 of this year and that as many documents as possible be declassified. To accomplish this, the president ordered the creation of the National Declassification Center (NDC) within NARA. The NDC is on pace to complete much of its work. As of April 6, the center had completed final quality assurance review and processing for national security information on 254 million of 358 million pages. Of the 254 million pages, all processing had been completed on 109 million, 64 million of which are declassified and open to the public. Recommendations from the Public Interest Declassification Board The president also ordered an overhaul of the way we classify and declassify government documents. Currently there is no standard way that agencies and departments across the government classify and declassify materials. Last year, the president asked the Public Interest Declassification Board to investigate this and make recommendations. The Board is an advisory committee established to promote an accurate and thorough record Of major U.S. national security decisions and activities by making recommendations to the president and executive branch agencies for improving classification and declassification policies and practices. The Board’s first report, Improving Declassification (2008) identified fifteen issues and provided forty-nine recommendations designed to make declassification reviews more uniform, effective, and efficient. Many of the Board’s recommendations were included in Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information, including the recommendation to create the NDC. The Board advocated for prioritizing the review of historically significant records and requiring that all classified information be subject to declassification review, including artifacts. Its recommendations led to greater interagency cooperation and more uniform, effective, and efficient declassification reviews. The latest report goes a step further, and it is on these recommendations that we can now expect some responses. Here are some of its recommendations: • Appointment by the president of a White House–led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee to oversee implementation of the Board’s recommendations to modernize the current system of classification and declassification. • Classification policies that limit and reduce overclassification. • A classification system streamlined into two levels to align with current access and safeguarding practices in government and to make the threshold for classifying align levels of protection with anticipated levels of harm. • A systematic declassification review process of formerly restricted data. • Strengthening the authority of the NDC, organizing and integrating declassification programs across Government, and requiring better risk management during reviews. • New policies that support records management modernization and early identification of historically important records. • Encouragement by the steering committee of collaboration to employ existing technologies and develop and pilot new methods to modernize classification and declassification. In the report, Chair Nancy Soderberg, noting that the current classification system is seventy years old, said a redesign of the system is needed to deal with the enormous volume of information the government generates while protecting the nation’s important secrets. “We believe the current classification and declassification systems are outdated and do not provide the right balance between the need to protect government secrets and the public’s right to know what government is doing.” The Board also emphasized in its recommendations that the new policies are even more important because new records will be in digital format, and the current system for paper records won’t be appropriate for digital documents. To carry out these recommendations, the president should now assemble a White House–led senior-level steering committee, as the November report recommended, to lead the reform effort. It should be made up of senior officials who will be in a position of authority to implement government-wide recommendations. We look forward to this reform initiative and believe it will provide the public with more access to records that document the rights of our citizens, the actions of our federal officials, and the story of our country so that future generations may learn from our experience.
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