PIDB meeting summary, 1.19.07

On January 19, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) met for its 11th public meeting, the first in a series of meetings to invite suggestions from the public on agency declassification. The first ten meetings focused on the declassification programs at major agencies. At this meeting, the panel heard comments and suggestions from Mark Zaid (litigator and executive director of the James Madison Project), Meredith Fuchs (General Counsel to the National Security Archive), and Scott Armstrong (executive director of the Information Trust).

The meeting opened with initial comments from Chair L. Britt Snider, including an update on the PIDB’s request to change its charter so that the Board can act without a direct request from the President. In October, the Board received a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee to review the classification of parts of two committee reports on prewar Iraq intelligence, but was unable to act because a provision in its statute says the Board cannot act without a request from the President. The Board asked the White House for guidance and asked Congress to amend the charter. The Board has not received a response, and plans to move ahead unless they hear from the President.

Archivist of the United States Dr. Allen Weinstein then spoke for a few minutes, focusing on the Archive’s need for more resources, including more money. He welcomed suggestions from both the PIDB and the public on how to obtain more resources. Bill Leonard, Director of Information Security Oversight Office, echoed Dr. Weinstein’s comments. He also noted that some agencies, including the Air Force, have been helpful in contributing resources.

The panel began with Mark Zaid. Zaid discussed some of the misleading ways agencies decrease their backlogs, the sometimes questionable use of the state secrets privilege, and the importance of boards like the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). He also suggested agencies be allowed increased response time for FOIA requets, recommending response time be increased from 20 days to 120 days. After Fuchs’ testimony, Zaid changed his suggestion to increase response time only for classified and interagency records. He also noted the importance of the attitude of executive branch officials toward disclosure, citing the different effect of two memos from different attorneys general (the Reno memo and the Ashcroft memo) had on disclosure. The outline of Zaid’s testimony is available here.

Meredith Fuchs’ view that the classification system is subjective, expensive, and sometimes ridiculous led her to some concrete recommendations for improvement. Her suggestions included changing the standard of review for historical records and providing adequate resources for agencies to handle FOIA requests and other declassification programs. She encouraged the Board to address some of the "secrecy fetishes" in the executive branch, including the secrecy of the aggregate intelligence budget and the Presidential Daily Briefs. She also emphasized the importance of judicial education, referencing an article she co-authored for the American Bar Association’s National Security Law Report on independent experts in national security cases. Fuchs’ written statement is available here.

Scott Armstrong told the panel he believes that the reclassification system is broken. He said the intention of the system is to control public debate, and the only solution is to create a new system. He said the current system has led to the "erosion of confidence in the executive and judicial branches." Armstrong illustrated his case with examples of his experiences as a reporter and as an investigator on the Senate Watergate Committee.

After the panel, Chairman Snider opened the meeting for comments or suggestions from those attending. No one offered comments.

 

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