Declassification Board: Bulwark Against Excessive Secrecy or Executive 'Puppet'?

Controversy was sparked this week over how much authority the newly-funded Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) has to investigate excessive secrecy. A bipartisan group of Senators from the Senate Intelligence Committee requested that the board review two reports on intelligence failures leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq for possible over-classification. In an interim response, the board maintained it can only review a document after receiving authorization from the president. If this decision stands, PIDB will hold no independent power to review potential abuses of power and cases of unnecessary secrecy.

Set up to "promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant United States national security decisions and significant United States security activities," PIDB was the recommendation of the late-Sen. Patrick Moynihan's (D-NY) Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy to be enacted. Though the board was created in 2000, its first members were appointed in 2004, and it did not receive funding until 2005.

Congress's first request for an investigation was sent to the board on Sept. 19, 2006 by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kit Bond (R-MO), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

"The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which we serve, recently released two reports addressing prewar intelligence issues regarding Iraq. We believe that portions of these two reports remain unnecessarily classified," stated the senators' request. "We ask that the Board review these two documents and evaluate whether any of the currently classified portions could be made public without negatively impacting national security."

In response, L. Britt Snider, chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, wrote, "The president must request that the board undertake such a review before it can proceed." In the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, Congress reauthorized the board which was set to sunset in 2004 and also revised the statutory language governing the board to include what some have interpreted to be two contradictory provisions. The bill states that PIDB is authorized to "review and make recommendations to the President in a timely manner with respect to any congressional request, made by the committee of jurisdiction, to declassify certain records." At the same time, the bill states that, "If requested by the President, the Board shall review in a timely manner certain records or declinations to declassify specific records, the declassification of which has been the subject of specific congressional request."

In its interim response, the PIDB stated that the latter provision takes precedence, and the Board's review of a classified document can thus only be triggered by the president, even if a congressional committee with jurisdiction requests a review. Speaking to United Press International in late October, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists warned that the board is in danger of becoming a "White House puppet." Aftergood went on, stating, "The board needs the capacity for independent action; otherwise, it might as well not exist."

The PIDB is expected to meet next week further discussion before issuing a final response to the Senate request. As the first major one its kind, the PIDB decision will have a lasting impact on the power and authority of the board to effectively oversee classification decisions and maintain government openness and accountability on matters of national security. With the 9/11 Commission and a number of national security experts concluding that the government's failure to adequately share information and its propensity toward over-classification are ongoing barriers to national security, PIDB has a unique opportunity to help reverse the tide of government secrecy and its counterproductive effects.

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