Exec Dir McDermott delivers remarks on improving the security classification system

On December 8, at a Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) public meeting, OTG Executive Director Patrice McDermott delivered remarks on the need to modernize the national security classification system through the next Administration’s Executive Order. The remarks specifically address the problems associated with the over-classification of practices that are deemed intelligence methods, and the need for the next Order to clarify and delimit the scope of classified methods to address this issue.

In the remarks, Dr. McDermott discusses examples of where assertions were regularly made  that classified methods were so intertwined with policy discussions that documents (in particular FISC orders) could not possibly be declassified, even in a redacted form.  We have had confirmation, however, since 2013 that these assertions were not true. Many of the documents, which the intelligence community claimed could not be declassified, have since been released.

The remarks highlight other examples of information that has been withheld under similar secrecy claims, pointing to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aka the Torture Report. The 500-page executive summary of this report was released in December 2014, detailing several of the intelligence agency’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which had previously been secret. Up until this public release, the government’s argument was that the entire torture program was classified. McDermott notes that, in January 2015, the government modified its classification rules for the military commissions: the torture methods used in CIA prisons are no longer subject to classification, although any information — that could reveal the locations where torture took place or the people who helped facilitate it — remains secret.

The remarks conclude, “National security classification should protect our democracy, not shield government actions that – too often consciously and deliberately – go around democratic practices and subvert constitutional protections. The vagueness and un-delimited scope of classified ‘intelligence methods’ needs to be rectified in the next Executive Order to ensure that it does not permit these uses.”

Read the full remarks delivered by Patrice McDermott before the Public Interest Declassification Board here.

The meeting also included presentations from Nate Jones (with the National Security Archive), Liza Goitein (Brennan Center for Justice), and Steve Aftergood (Federation of American Scientists).

Additional resources

12/8 Public Meeting Preview: Comments from Civil Society Participants (PIDB)

Open government groups express support for FOIA reform, and concern over carve-outs for the intelligence community (OTG)