Policy and News Updates for January 15, 2008

In This Issue: [click on the link to go to the corresponding section]

I. Registration for OpenTheGovernment.org’s Sunshine Week event now open!
II. Legislative Update
III. Interview with Steven Aftergood of FAS, discussing the report of the Public Interest Declassification Board

News from Coalition Partners & Others


I. Registration for OpenTheGovernment.org’s Sunshine Week event now open!

Registration is now open for OpenTheGovernment.org’s Sunshine Week 2008 event, "Government Secrecy: Censoring Your Right to Know," which is available via webcast and satellite downlink. Visit our registration page for more information and to fill out the registration form (and to pay for the satellite downlink via PayPal), for our March 19 event.


II. Legislative Update

S.223, "The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act," has bipartisan support from 40 co-sponsors, but John Ensign (R-NV) continues to block passage with a hold. Watch an informational video from the Sunlight Foundation about efforts to require Senators to file campaign finance contribution reports electronically, then call Sen. Ensign’s office to tell him to drop his objection to the bill: (202) 224-6244.

Read more about holds in a recent CRS report (via FAS).



III. Interview with Steven Aftergood of FAS, discussing the report of the Public Interest Declassification Board

Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed to discuss the recent report of the Public Interest Declassification Board, "Improving Declassification". Aftergood monitors national security issues, writing at the Secrecy News Blog.

OpenTheGovernment.org: Is there an inherent conflict of interest in allowing the president to set declassification policy regarding executive-branch information via executive order, or does the ability of Congress, in theory, to override the president’s policy/policies, counter that sufficiently?

Steven Aftergood: Congress has a great deal of authority to regulate and legislate declassification as well as classification policies. In practice, however, it has mostly refrained from doing so, partly because of executive resistance, partly because it’s a difficult thing to get right, and partly because whenever Congressional action seemed to be looming, the Administration would often defuse any initiative with a gesture of openness. But the result has been that the public generally has to rely on the good faith of Administration officials to determine the priority, the funding levels, and the criteria for declassification. All of these have been problematic in recent years.

OTG: How would you evaluate the declassification board’s process and effectiveness for public interest concerns?

SA: Judging from the new PIDB report on Improving Declassification, the Board’s efforts have not been wasted. The report is a valuable piece of work. It provides a long list of practical steps that could be taken, now and in the future, to improve declassification of historical records. The impact of the proposals is likely to be all the more significant given the top-notch national security credentials of many of the Board members.

On the other hand, the Board itself is purely advisory, and so far, it has only dealt with historical records, not current classification disputes. The Board has no independent authority, and its report alone does not "make anything happen." So the effectiveness of its work really depends on how it is received within government and among the interested public. It could be ignored, or it could be used as a map for moving forward.

OTG: Executive Order ("EO") 12958 required some actions ("establish Government-wide database of information that has been declassified"; "explore other possible uses of technology to facilitate the declassification process"); then, eight years later, EO 13292 removed those requirements. What happened in the intervening years on those issues, and did the 2003 EO simply erase that progress/momentum, or put those plans on hiatus, or do something else entirely?

SA: As far as I know, little or no progress was made on establishment of a Government-wide database, perhaps in part because there was no dedicated budget for it. If it could be accomplished, it would make a huge difference in improving the accessibility of declassified documents. But it’s still on the "to do" list. Or it was until the Bush executive order took it off the list.

A bit more progress has arguably been made on the "other possible uses of technology to facilitate the declassification process." Some of this is internal to the government, involving file sharing among agencies and similar things to support document review. But there are also some new public applications, like CIA’s CREST database of declassified documents. Unfortunately, CIA will not release the database or put it online — you have to go to the National Archives to use it. But it demonstrates the kind of thing that can be done.

OTG: Do you think the executive branch, and agencies, need additional incentives to establish public databases of declassified documents? Who, or what, could provide them, or otherwise change their calculations?

SA: Well, evidently they do need to be pushed in that direction. I suppose the first step is to argue the case for public databases, and to explain that declassification is useless if nobody knows that it has taken place. Conversely, public access to a database of declassified documents would multiply the utility of the declassification process many times over. So if declassification is worth doing in the first place, it is worth doing right. Maybe the way to approach this goal is to proceed incrementally, with a few selected agencies receiving budget allocations to develop public databases, who could then serve as pathfinders for the others.

OTG: What do you think it would take to persuade this — or any — Administration to declassify the annual intelligence budget? How would you identify the prospects for codifying declassification as a required practice instead of an annual request that can be easily turned aside?

SA: I think this battle may have been won in 2007, with Congress having enacted an intelligence budget disclosure requirement (at least for two years) and the Bush Administration having signed it into law. I think that by 2009, when the new law allows for the possibility of a presidential waiver, the intelligence agencies will have realized that disclosure is simply not a problem for them and there is no reason for them to oppose it. I think intelligence budget disclosure should and will become the new norm.

OTG: How would you describe the difference between "cold war classification practices" and current national security concerns?

SA: Briefly, there have been a whole series of geopolitical as well as technological changes that have altered the nature of national security. The threats faced by the United States are diffuse, not monolithic, and cannot be effectively countered by the top-down command structure of the past. This means, among other things, that the ways in which national security information was restricted in the past are often no longer appropriate today, and are sometimes even counterproductive. One of the most interesting phenomena in secrecy policy today is the complaints voiced by senior national security professionals — not openness advocates — about the dysfunction of the classification system and the need to move to a new model. Of course, that’s easier said than done.


News from Coalition Partners & Others


Sunlight Foundation enhances interactive features on OpenCongress.org

OpenCongress.org, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, now features My OpenCongress, which enables individuals not only to track legislation on a single page, but also to discuss, vote, and network online. OpenCongress’s work is free, open-source, not-for-profit, and non-partisan.


FBI curtails speech at ALA meeting

The American Library Association had expected FBI whistleblower Bassem Youssef, the highest-ranking Arab-American agent and chief of a unit responsible for administering two warrantless search programs, to discuss "a number of critical failures within the FBI’s Counterterrorism program." Shortly before Mr. Youssef’s planned speech, his attorney wrote that the presentation and ability to comment on certain topics had been curtailed by the FBI, according to secret rules (read the letter). See the LibraryJournal.com story and a Wall Street Journal article (subscription required), and post-speech coverage. Watch our Of Interest list for further news.



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