“They are meeting weekly as an interagency group, and meeting more frequently within the agencies to sort out their own wants and needs,” says Steven Aftergood. “They are not meeting weekly with people outside the government, who have different expectations for this process. And it won’t be surprising if the final product reflects that. I mean, you and I aren’t around the table.”
General Jones’s staff did ask the Public Interest Declassification Board to run a public input process, which included a forum at the National Archives, attended by government officials and a wide range of outside access advocates and classification stakeholders. The PIDB also worked with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to set up an online public forum allowing anyone to offer outside suggestions, no matter how far they were from Washington.
Many people contributed—historians, former government employees, and experts including Aftergood and Leonard. The PIDB summarized their recommendations and sent them along to General Jones. The accompanying letter offered a meeting between the PIDB and the interagency drafting group, and suggested that some form of the recommendations be released before they were finalized to allow further public comment. There has been no response on either point.
Even so, it’s indisputable that the online forum offered an unprecedented method for the access community and everyday citizens to offer suggestions and concerns about classification policy.
“We think it worked out quite well,” says PIDB acting chair Martin Faga, before acknowledging that it was “hard to say” how seriously the public input would be taken.
It would have been easy for a casual commenter, one unfamiliar with the structure of the review, to get the impression that they were offering comment directly to the decision makers, rather than to a board that would summarize and pass along their contributions.
“It was at one end of a very long funnel,” said Aftergood. “Their input may be briefly read and considered, but it won’t be given the same weight as the agencies that have to comply with the executive order.”
Bosanko, in his dual role as a member of the interagency group and the PIDB’s secretary, was a connection between the review process and the public comment generated on the project’s blog. While he declined to comment onwhat the interagency group would be recommending to the president, he says that ideas and proposals raised on the blog forum were regularly cited, weighed, and discussed by the decision makers.
The panel’s recommendations, whatever they may be, can’t begin to impact the classification system until they become a signed executive order. After that, there will be a months- to years-long period of ramping up, as the ISOO writes administrative guidance refining the implementation. There will be a major effort to retrain the nation’s classification officers. And if, as is expected, the order produces a new National Declassification Center, there will be all the effort required to create an entirely new government entity, requiring cooperation and staff from agencies throughout the executive branch.
“Just like the classification system itself, where there’s an inherent tension about what is open and what is closed, you have that same tension with policy and what is implementable,” says Bosanko, before listing some of the challenges to reforming the classification system: “The level of change you can foster in a bureaucracy in a given period of time, the amount of culture you have to over come, the budgetary limits you have on an agency’s ability to change, the cost to train a work force, when you factor in all of those different things, its very difficult to come up with something that all the agencies are going to embrace, and be willing to accept, and which the public accepts… it’ll be interesting.”