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DNI Haines Delivers Keynote Address on Overclassification at PIDB Meeting, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 2/2/2023

February 2, 2023
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Public Interest Declassification Board Meets at LBJ Library 

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) recently held a two-day conference at the LBJ presidential library to discuss classification issues and reforming the current executive order on classified national security information, EO 13526. The event was in-person but the keynote address from Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, as well as a series of panels, were taped and are available online. Highlights from the conference include:

  • An Evening with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines: Haines speaks with Adam Klein, Director of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, on overclassification, and how it undermines both critical national security and democratic objectives. Haines notes that the war in Ukraine, space, and the cyber front are all areas where the need to share information has been hampered by the proliferation of classified material. Other noteworthy remarks include: technology has made it easier to leak and disseminate classified information; declassifying information generally requires more seniority than classifying it (troublingly, many employees remain uneducated on the standards for initial classification); and there are few work-related incentives to declassify information. 
    • Haines underscores the need to continue to work on the development of a system that “minimizes what is classified as an initial matter,” and facilitating the downgrading the declassification of information as it ages. She also addresses some of the steps the ODNI is taking to meet these challenges, including experimenting with artificial intelligence to reduce manual review of classified documents and reduce the FOIA backlog.
  • LBJ Library Discussion on Presidential Records and the National Archives: A panel of current and former presidential library directors and historians talk about the relationship between the libraries and NARA, and how the declassification process works at the libraries. Declining staff and resources are a major theme for this panel. Historian Timothy Naftali’s remarks were especially astute, and he notes that NARA is not “wholly blameless,” particularly NARA leadership’s decision to “reimagine the processing, declassification, and release process” for presidential records. Naftali’s observations about the inefficiencies and backlogs exacerbated by the decision to consolidate classified presidential records in D.C., despite not having the funding to hire archivists and subject matter experts to oversee them at the new location, deserve special attention.
  • Government Historians on Working with Classified Information: Historians working for the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the FBI discuss their work with classified information. Adam Howard, the director of the State Department’s Office of the Historian, discusses the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, which is “arguably the largest transparency project in the world”. (The State Department is statutorily obligated to publish a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” record of US foreign policy “no later than 30 years after the events that they document.”) Howard discusses the transparency importance of the FRUS, but should emphasize that the State Department has struggled to meet the 30-year deadline because of the actions of other agencies and their unwillingness to declassify material. The department’s Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) has laid much of the blame with the Department of Defense, stating that the DoD has “performed so negligently and so egregiously violated the requirements mandated by the Foreign Relations statute that it more than offset the commendable efforts of the other agencies and departments.”
    • Erin Mahan, the Chief Historian for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, discusses the importance of historians having a seat at the table in a new executive order on classification, and a need for historians and records managers to have a “constant dialogue.” She points to the Argentina Declassification Project as a model of success for this type of interaction.
    • John Fox, the FBI Historian, also discusses staffing problems at the National Archives, where many (but not all) historical records have been accessioned, and the bottleneck it causes when trying to declassify records. 
  • Classified Information and the Media: An interesting panel with reporters coming into contact with classified information. Panelists are Adam Goldman with the New York Times, Josh Gerstein with Politico, Dustin Volz with the Wall Street Journal, and Nomaan Merchant with the Associated Press. 

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Is a Bipartisan Classification Fix Realistic?

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) recently said he believes that a “bipartisan fix” is possible to ensure that outgoing presidents and vice presidents don’t improperly maintain classified documents. The comments were delivered at the National Press Club and echo similar comments made by ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). Comer suggests the possible fix won’t be immediate, noting, “This just needs to happen prior to this administration going out of office and before the next administration comes into office.” In related news:

  • On Tuesday of this week Gary Stern, counsel for the National Archives and Records Administration, sat for a transcribed interview with the Oversight committee. I will post a transcript of the interview if and when it becomes available. 
  • NARA has published Acting Archivist Debra Wall’s responses to questions from House Oversight concerning classified presidential records, and they are available here

Archive Posting Highlights the First Months of U.S. Relations with the New Russia, 1992

The George H.W. Bush administration was reluctant to embrace the “relations of deep mutual trust and alliance” proposed by the newly independent Russian Federation and its leader, Boris Yeltsin, in early 1992, according to declassified U.S. documents, released thanks to National Security Archive FOIA requests. The documents show Yeltsin was eager for new and dramatic arms control arrangements that would exceed whatever former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had offered, and that Yeltsin sought American backing for Russia to take the Soviet Union’s place in a bipolar world. But the 1990s were the years of the American “unipolar moment” in geopolitics, and tragic years for Russia, where rule by decree replaced any parliamentary democracy, the economy collapsed twice into depression, and the legacy was a return to authoritarianism. These documents represent early highlights from a forthcoming reference collection covering the entire 1990s, US-Russian Relations from the End of the Soviet Union to the Rise of Vladimir Putin, to be published by ProQuest in the award-winning Digital National Security Archive series.

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