19 March 2014
Major Reviews of the US Secrecy System
The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) is an advisory committee
established by Congress in 2000, in order to promote the fullest possible
public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of
significant U.S. national security decisions and activities.
Commemorating Sunshine Week: More Sunshine Earlier
by administrator on March 14, 2014
The annual celebration of Sunshine Week reminds us of the need for greater
transparency in government and greater public access to government information.
As part of the initiative to promote freedom of information, we, the members
of the Public Interest Declassification Board, renew our call on the need
to transform our nations security classification system. Our 2012 Report
to the President provides recommendations that will serve our citizens and
our government in the digital age we live in and provides meaninful access
to declassified national security information.
The climate of suspicion surrounding the management of national security
information requires a new approach to access that promotes more sunshine
earlier. Under the current system, the public waits 25 or even 50 years
or more for declassification to automatically occur. The two channels for
requesting access to national security information (one the Freedom of
Information Act, the other being Manadatory Declassification Review) are
bogged down with long queues and uneven reviews. Subjective declassification
decisions are often dependent on the quality and care of individual reviewers
and challenging agencies on these reviews is a long and arduous process.
We believe we need an entirely new construct to perform declassification
efficiently and effectively across government. The challenges of managing
information created in the era of Big Data require new and innovating thinking,
new policies and new beliefs about information if we are ever going to be
able to modernize the security classification system. Rote declassification
is not the way forward and will not increase nor improve access to government
In our 2012 Report to the President, we made a series of recommendations
on how best to transform the security classification system. We believe that
Sunshine Week is an opportune time to revisit those recommendations and renew
the call for increased access to information, a fundamental tenet inherent
to our democracy.
During Sunshine Week, our members will participate in and attend events
highlighting the importance of citizen access to government information.
Throughout the week, Congressional hearings, newspaper editorials, campus
gatherings and events across our nation invite citizens to participate in
the dialogue of promoting freedom of information and government transparency.
There are over 30 events listed on the Sunshine Week website,
http://sunshineweek.org. We encourage
your participation at these events during Sunshine Week and look forward
to hearing about your experiences on our blog.
Summary of the following reports on US secrecy:
Public Interest Declassification Board Meeting Friday, June 22, 2007. Selected
Recommendations on Classification & Declassification from Major Reviews
Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy - 1997
Major Reviews of the U.S. Secrecy System
[Links to reports by Cryptome.]
The following provides a summary of key studies on classification,
declassification, and personnel security. This summary does not include numerous
other studies that have indirectly addressed these issues in the course of
more broad-based examinations of Federal information policies, or studies,
such as those of the General Accounting Office, that have been more limited
in their scope. Nor does it include the annual reports of the Information
Security Oversight Office, which have, on occasion, put forth detailed
recommendations for reform to classification practices.
Coolidge Committee - 1956
Created by Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson to investigate how to prevent
future leaks of classified information, the Defense Department Committee
on Classified Information undertook a three-month review of DoD classification
practices and policies. The Committee, composed of representatives from the
military services and chaired by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles
Coolidge, declared the classification system sound in concept,
but also found that vague classification standards and the failure to punish
overclassification had caused overclassification to reach serious
proportions and had resulted in diminishing public confidence in the
classification system. Among the recommendations included in its November
8, 1956 report were: addressing overclassification from the top down, beginning
with the Secretary of Defense; creating a Director for Declassification within
the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and reducing the number of Top
Secret original classifiers.
Wright Commission - 1957
The bipartisan Commission on Government Security, chaired by former American
Bar Association President Loyd Wright, was the only previous Congressionally
mandated review of the security system. The Commission held no public hearings,
produced no press releases, and made no public statements during its
eighteen-month study. In its June 23, 1957 report, the Commission stressed
the danger to national security that arises out of
overclassification. Its recommendations included: abolition of the
Confidential level and corresponding security checks; restricting
original classification authority to agencies already possessing it and limiting
that authority to the agency heads; improvement of classification training
for those with such authority; creation of a Central Security Office to review
the management of the security system and to make recommendations for change
when necessary; and legislation criminalizing the unauthorized disclosure
of classified information, including by the press.
Moss Subcommittee - 1958
Although the efforts of the Special Government Information Subcommittee of
the House Government Operations Committee spanned two decades, its early
work under Chairman John Moss (including scores of hearings and over two
dozen interim reports) was especially significant. Created in 1955, the
Subcommittee began its efforts with a two-year examination of Federal
classification policies, focusing in particular on the Defense Department.
In its first report, issued on June 16, 1958, the Subcommittee attributed
overclassification at DoD in large part to the lack of punishment for
overclassification but not for underclassification. Citing the loss
of public confidence when information is withheld for any other
reason than true military security, it recommended: procedures for
independent review of complaints about overclassification; mandatory marking
of each classified document with the future date or event after which it
is to be reviewed or automatically downgraded or declassified; establishment
of a date by which the DoD would declassify classified material accumulating
in agency files, with a minimum of exceptions; and disciplinary
action against those who overclassify.
Seitz Task Force - 1970
The Department of Defense Science Boards Task Force on Secrecy was
prompted by DoD concerns over the effectiveness of its security measures.
The Task Force, chaired by Dr. Frederick Seitz, found that DoDs
classification system required major surgery and noted negative
aspects of classification such as its cost, uncertainty in the public
mind on policy issues, and impediments to the free flow of information.
Chief among its conclusions was that perhaps 90 percent of all
classification of technical and scientific information could be eliminated.
The July 1, 1970 report of the Task Force included the following recommendations:
a maximum duration of five years for classification of scientific and
technological information, with few exceptions; overhauling classification
guides by considering the benefits to technological development that would
result from greater public access to information; and review and declassification
of classified DoD materials within two years.
Stilwell Commission - 1985
Established by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to identify systemic
vulnerabilities, the Commission to Review DoD Security Policies and
Practices found that little scrutiny was given decisions to classify.
The Commission, chaired by Gen. Richard Stilwell (Ret.), concluded that
shortcomings in the classification management arena were primarily
a matter of inadequate implementation of existing policy, rather than a matter
of deficient policy. Among the recommendations included in its report,
issued on November 19, 1985, were the following: banning the retention of
classified documents for more than five years unless the documents are
permanently valuable; further reduction in the number of original
classifiers; a one-time review and revalidation of all DoD Special Access
Programs; minimum security standards for all DoD Special Access Programs;
and placement of security responsibilities within a single staff element
Joint Security Commission - 1994
Tasked by Secretary of Defense William Perry and Director of Central Intelligence
R. James Woolsey with developing a new approach to security, the Joint Security
Commission engaged in a nine-month review. Finding that the system had reached
unacceptable levels of inefficiency, inequity, and cost, the
Commissions February 1994 report, Redefining Security, included the
following recommendations: a one-level classification system with two
degrees of [physical] protection; establishing a Joint Security Executive
Committee to oversee the development of policies in its new system; use of
a risk management philosophy when developing new security policies;
and a single, consolidated policy and set of security standards for special
access programs and sensitive compartmented information.