Public Interest Declassification Board Meeting Minutes 04/01/06
For the Public Interest Declassification Board September 9, 2006
Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this Board to share the State Department's experience in the declassification and release of the records of our foreign policy, as well as to provide some insight into the challenges that we face. I sincerely believe that the mandate of this Board is extremely important. Indeed, I have dedicated my entire career to the management of our nation's information resources, and most particularly, to the translation of the Founding Fathers' vision of an informed citizenry into a 21st Century global reality. I am hopeful that some of the lessons we have learned over the past 30 years can help frame your debate regarding the direction we take for decades to come.
The State Department has a longstanding tradition of opening the record of US foreign policy that dates back to 1925 when then Secretary of State Frank Kellogg codified regulations establishing standards for the Foreign Relations of the United States series (commonly known as FRUS). The charter prescribed by Secretary Kellogg demanded that the FRUS include "a comprehensive record of the major foreign policy decisions within the range of the Department of State's responsibilities," that Department historians have unconditional access to all records, and that the published text indicate the reasons for any deletions from the original record. Clearly, Secretary Kellogg was a man far ahead of his time -- not only through his initiative to make public the historic records of foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity, but through the standards of access and deletion which remain the same in our public access and declassification business today. My colleagues from The Historians Office, as well as the Chairman of the Department's Historical Advisory Committee, are here to update you on their current operations and challenges.
While we continued to publish the FRUS series, not much happened to advance public access and declassification until the mid 1960s when President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act. The State Department, like most agencies, didn't really take it seriously for at least ten years.
As we began to move into the Information Age in the late 1970s, things began to change in public access to government records and declassification. The seminal event in this area was the congressional inquiry into Vietnam POWs and MIAs. Some of you may recall that this was a major initiative, particularly for the defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs agencies. It was the first major government-wide document production and declassification exercise - with the obvious exception of the first Kennedy assassination investigation. I believe that landmark effort forever changed the landscape of information access and declassification in the federal government because it heightened expectations of what we would be able to do - our ability to retrieve historical records and to make them public. It was, in essence, a precursor of the document production activities that became predominate two decades later and set the stage for the work of this Board. During the 80s and 90s, we struggled at the State Department to satisfy what became rivaling priorities, all of which involved extensive declassification efforts. We attempted to comply with the ever-increasing demands of the FOIA and Privacy Acts from a public had developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for access to government records, particularly national security records; our workload grew because, frankly, the public recognized that they probably had a better chance of getting records released by the State Department than by some of our sister agencies. We continued a discretionary systematic declassification program by opening the most significant historic foreign policy records at the National Archives where the diplomatic archives became the most accessed of all records with the exception of the genealogical files. Of course, this program has grown into a demanding mandatory declassification program for all permanent records. Finally, meeting the new business requirements of special document production for the Congress, the courts, and special investigatory bodies became what many consider one of the new growth industries in the federal government. Congressional document production had, in some cases, become a virtual political football. The investigation and prosecution of multinational corporations, war criminals, and terrorists required comprehensive record searches and declassification review to produce evidence for grand juries and trials. The compilation and declassification of US documentation shed light for the first time on human rights abuses in Chile, Argentina, and Central American countries, again providing evidence for prosecution, as well as leading the way for beginning a healing process in those countries. And last, but certainly not least, the activities of special investigatory bodies concerning the JFK Assassination, the Nazi and Japanese War Crimes, and the 9-11 Commission, among others, all were empowered by aggressive legislation covering the records of the entire national security community and contributing to a more informed public debate, not only in our own country, but around the world.
The advances in technology, particularly in the past ten years via the World Wide Web, have brought our work to the desktops of the citizens of the world. Nearly ten years ago the unprecedented government-wide effort of the Chile Declassification Project resulted in the production of literally hundreds of thousands of pages of records made available not only in paper at the National Archives, but also posted on the State Department's website with full-text retrieval capability, a first in the federal government. Our Argentina human rights collection was posted on the same website and had over 750,000 hits on the first day of its release. Indeed, the State Department's FOIA website -- where we post released records -- has over 240 million hits annually. We have begun the transfer of the electronic archive of State Department cables dating back to 1973, with declassified cables available on the National Archives site -- a huge boon to historical researchers who no longer must go to College Park to access this valuable collection, but are able to do so at their own desktops. However, there is a compelling dilemma for responsible government officials. It goes without saying that every single one of these demands has tremendous value, whether it is satisfying the Founding Fathers' vision of an informed democracy - and today that means for a global citizenry -- or bringing to justice the bad guys, wherever they may be. But by their very nature, document production and declassification are extremely time-consuming, labor-intensive, and require specialized expertise. Leveraging technology is expensive. In short, all of this requires resources. Needless to say, these programs compete for limited resources side-by-side with each agency's primary mission programs. Decision-makers are faced with very difficult choices, particularly in times of fiscal constraint and crises. The choice between a political officer for Embassy Baghdad or a declassification officer for IPS isn't really much of a choice. So many of us are challenged to do more with less, which we have been able to do through re-engineering, streamlining, innovative approaches to staffing and the use of technology, and, I'm particularly please to say, new interagency partnerships. But we cannot do everything, and meet ever-increasing demands and expectations. At the State Department, we have a totally centralized program for all records management and access, document production, classification and declassification, privacy, etc. which enables us to leverage our fiscal, human, and technological resources to the most pressing demands. That's a euphemistic way of saying, we perform triage, like many agencies, to meet the most pressing demands and the highest expectations. So what are the lessons we have learned that bear on the mandate of this Board? The first is so obvious that it is often taken for granted. It is frequently overlooked, but is the single factor most critical to the success of the endeavors of this Board. A robust records management program is the foundation for any document production initiative, particularly given the proliferation of technology. In short, without a commitment to programs that ensure the preservation and management of records, there will be nothing to declassify and release. And I would suggest that those programs must be on a par with the IT programs. It is essential that we recognize that our information is our real asset, and that technology is to tool to facilitate its communication and management.
That said, program based technology designed for internal processing and for external access is essential. Technology can facilitate the entire document production activity, from research and compilation to review and release. Perhaps most importantly is the universal access and research capabilities that technology brings to the finished product as I mentioned in our experience with the Chile and Argentina projects, as well as our own FOIA website. Our experience at the State Department has been that the centralization of all our information access and declassification activities - including FOIA, Privacy, systematic review, FRUS, manuscript review, document production for the Congress and special investigatory bodies -- has enabled us to leverage our limited resources to meet the requirements of not only our external customers, but also our internal ones. By bringing together the people, expertise, specialized technology, business practices, and institutional knowledge in a single, central organization we are able to create new levels of efficiencies and economies in document production and declassification. For example, based on statistics in the ISOO Annual Report, the State Department was responsible for 20% of the total declassification effort (69% of the total productivity for the civilian agencies) and we accomplished that rate at less than 2% of the total cost. We declassified over 85% of the pages reviewed, withdrawing fewer than 3% for our own equities. And I'm pleased and proud to report that we are ahead of target in meeting the Executive Order's December goal. With information management, document production, and declassification being recognized as our core competencies coupled with the utilization of a corps of experts (including the retired senior officers like those you've met today, a rather revolutionary approach when we introduced in nearly 30 years ago), the State Department has minimized dependencies on those professionals involved in the day-to-day operations of our agency and reduced the need to divert scare resources from mission critical priorities in order to meet these information requirements.
Collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships with other agencies and with our diverse requester community have become essential ingredients of our business strategy. Outreach and communication with our customers have helped managed expectations on both sides and have gone a long way in diminishing an "us versus them" mentality. The success of the declassification review, transfer, and opening of our electronic corporate archives would not have been possible without an unprecedented level of collaboration within the national security community and particularly with certain intelligence agencies, not to mention our partners at The National Archives .
Perhaps the most daunting challenge for agency executives - and the greatest opportunity for this Board - is a strategy for managing rivaling priorities. Information management, document production, public access, and declassification are governed by a wide range of mandates from all three branches of government and a host of others, including the Freedom of Information Act and the President's new Executive Order, the Privacy Act and the Administration's focus on Personally Identifiable Information, the Executive Order's mandatory systematic review requirements, the Foreign Relations series, special investigatory bodies, special projects, the War Crimes Act, manuscript review, cooperative declassification initiatives with foreign governments and international organizations. And of course, a subpoena power or a court order trumps everything. Many of these demands are relatively manageable in scope and clear in purpose. By contrast, the FOIA empowers anyone, anywhere, anytime to request anything - or everything - for any purpose, or for no purpose at all, and then gives the requester the opportunity to sue the agency for failure to comply in a timely or comprehensive manner. Is there any doubt why there are high levels of frustration in both the requester and federal communities? The vision of the Freedom of Information Act is noble indeed; however, in very practical terms, and particularly in an environment of increased fiscal constraints, it heightens requester expectations while leaving agencies with resources less than adequate for the demands.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I believe that the mandate of this Board is extremely important, particularly insofar as it encourages enlightened exchanges and explores pragmatic approaches to satisfying the public interest within the reality of managing the public purse. Developing these strategic solutions would challenge even Solomon. Perhaps an alternative to "splitting the baby" would be the identification of areas of such "extraordinary public interest" that the Executive and Congress would agree to a prioritization of agencies' efforts and the concentrated dedication of resources to the cooperative compilation, declassification, and dissemination of these records collections. These initiatives would take priority over the disparate mandates of the current collection of laws and orders, thereby eliminating the dilemma of rivaling priorities within the agencies and establish clear expectations for the public. This is but one suggestion designed to begin the discussion of a new strategic direction in the national interest. I look forward to the State Department being an enthusiastic participant.