The Coalition Column
News Briefs, September 2004
Bruce Craig, September 2004
On July 15, 2004, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) introduced the "Independent National Security Classification Board Act of 2004" (S. 2627). This legislation is designed to create a board (to be located in the executive branch) that would review current classification policies, make recommendations for reform, and "serve as a neutral forum for re-examining disputed classification decisions."
The board loosely resembles the nine-member Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) that was authorized in the 2001 Intelligence Authorization Act but has never been established. Under the PIDB (also known as the "Moynihan Board"), the Majority and Minority Leadership of each House as well as the president each were to make appointments (the Congressional leadership is to appoint four members, the president five members). To date the Senate, the House or the president have not made a single nomination to the board.
This new legislative effort would provide $2 million to establish a much smaller three-member board of which the president, the Senate, and the House would each nominate one individual; all members would require Senate confirmation. Despite being situated in the executive branch, the board would not be empowered to compel any agency to declassify documents; rather, the board would only be able to make suggestions and recommendations.
According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, this proposed legislation may, nevertheless, "actually lead somewhere, especially if it can be given some teeth." Aftergood hopes that the bill can be strengthened to include independent statutory authority to actually declassify documents and not just recommend declassification.
A companion bill (H.R. 4855) has also been introduced in the House. Hearings have yet to be scheduled.
During a June 15, 2004, speech to the National Classification Management Society’s (NCMS) annual training seminar, J. William Leonard, director of Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), warned that the integrity of the current federal agency classification system might be in danger. "Too much classification unnecessarily impedes effective information sharing, and inappropriate classification undermines the integrity of the entire process," stated Leonard.
In issuing Executive Order 12958 last year, President Bush sought, he said, to ensure that classification standards would be rigorously upheld. However, Leonard points out, "as evidenced by a view of newspaper headlines over the past several months, agencies are finding it is increasingly difficult for them to hold their own employees accountable for adhering to the requirements for protecting classified information." This disturbing trend is the result of excessive classification, Leonard said, and added that "it is no coincidence that some of these same agencies are currently experiencing a veritable epidemic of leaks—part and parcel of what occurs when individuals begin to lose confidence in the security classification system." Leonard also stated that while classification is "an inherently discretionary act" in determining what is to be classified, "the original classification authority must be able to identify or describe the damage to national security that would arise if the information was subject to unauthorized disclosure." Leonard stated his belief that agency employees are becoming desensitized to the significance of the classification process because so many documents are being classified.
Leonard reminded his audience that, "in no case can information be classified in order to conceal violations of law or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency." Prior to classifying a document, government classifiers should ask themselves the following questions: If released, what possible damage will the document cause to international or national security? Who produced the document? Is it owned by a United States government agency?
Leonard concluded, "the integrity of the security classification program is essential to our nation’s continued well-being. The consequences of failure are too high. Thus, the American people expect and deserve nothing less than that we get the basics right each and every day."
Thanks to the Federation of American Scientists, the full text of Leonard’s speech may be found at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/leonard061504.pdf.