Marco Rubio: Time to Reform Declassification Policy

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., currently the acting chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, convened an open hearing titled, “Declassification Policy and Prospects for Reform.”

Rubio’s remarks can be found below.

Rubio: This afternoon we welcome Mr. Greg Koch from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and former Representative John Tierney from the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) to discuss declassification policy. In particular, we will discuss striking a balance between protecting our nation’s classified material and ensuring historical documents can — safely — get their moment in the sun.

Congress established the PIDB to advise the Executive Branch on the identification, review, and release of records. In May of 2020, the PIDB released a report on reforming the declassification process, which recommended sweeping changes to the way we declassify records. Today, we look to our witness, former Congressman John Tierney, to explain those recommendations.

Let me just say broadly that the Intelligence Community agrees that reform is needed. The backlog of historical documents is large, the system for moving documents through review is completely outdated, and the standards, quite frankly, are sometimes inconsistent throughout the national security establishment. I am concerned, however, that the recommendations do not align with ODNI’s current role given that they have neither the authority nor the expertise to serve as the leader of the declassification enterprise for the entire government, which is one of the issues that we have discussed in terms of jurisdiction for this Committee. They are not—and they should not be—in a position to set the declassification rules for the Defense Department’s war plans or nuclear programs, for example.

We look forward to talking to our witness about ODNI’s view of the declassification process and business practices, including the prospects for achievable reform and the limits of ODNI’s authority.

Separately, I think the subject of this hearing allows me to emphasize a related point: the difference between responsible declassification of secrets that don’t need to be secret, and selfish, irresponsible leaks.

The reason we classify things is not because you try to keep things from people. It’s because if it is revealed, you will reveal how you learned about those things. And the people and entities you are collecting on will realize that you have access to information and cut you off from more important information in the future. So this is why one of the main reasons why things are kept secret. That is, of course, balanced with the default position of transparency from government.

We need transparency in order to have accountability that our system of government requires. So it has to be balanced between these two equities: protecting the safety and security of the American people through our ability to learn valuable information about adversaries and potential adversaries with the need of the American people for transparency on everything their government does.

I’m actually very proud of this Committee, that by and large and has been very responsible in my 10 years on this Committee with the information we’ve come across. No matter where we fall on the issues, I think it’s fair to say this Committee has never been, in my time on it, a source of these types of things.

But, there are those who do, outside of this Committee, casually dismiss the responsibility of holding classified information. Many of them, frankly, have never sat through a briefing or been read into billion-dollar programs that, if revealed, would leave our nation blind and deaf to the threats that we face. They have never met and heard about the brave men and women who risk their lives every single day to prevent the next terrorist attack or to steal the plans for a deadly new weapons system. These are the secrets that al-Qaeda, China, Iran, Russia, and others seek, and they would use that information to do us harm.

These secrets need to stay secret, but not forever. An agreed upon declassification process that allows review of secret documents to be sure those secrets can be given their day in the sun without harming people, or programs, or the American taxpayer. Done responsibly, that would build trust between the American people and their government. So Mr. Koch and his colleagues make sure that happens for the Intelligence Community.

But some are not willing to play by the rules, unfortunately. People who have put their lives on the line to give us information deserve better than to see hard-won secrets splashed across the pages of the New York Times or The Washington Post, just because a bureaucrat or a politician wanted to score a cheap political point for their benefit.

Our nation deserves better than that. Our people deserve better than that. They pay taxes so their government can provide for a common defense. We spend those taxes on technological breakthroughs, on brilliant mathematicians, and clever computer scientists who could make 10 times their salary by working somewhere else.

These people work for years to gain access to these secrets – the secrets that keep us safe from a terrorist attack, or from the next enormous hack from China or somewhere else, or to stop an oligarch’s plans to try to influence and steal an election.

Then they see that access evaporate when someone decides they are above that higher mission, and that scoring a political point is more important than protecting our country and honoring our taxpayers. And then the trust is destroyed, those dollars dissolve as if they never existed, our allies suddenly consider us a security risk, and it is no overstatement to say that people die.

From Edward Snowden to a politician who wants to be the first to break news, we — the American people — suffer for their selfish acts. And who benefits? Maybe the politician snags a few headlines for a few hours and an interview on cable news; but the real winner ultimately is our adversaries.

All that said, I want to take a minute to thank the professionals on whose shoulders these declassification decisions rest. Our ODNI briefer, Mr. Koch, represents a very small group of people who, in the last three years, have been a vital partner for this Committee. We sought to reveal information the right way — after working with the Intelligence Community to ensure we were doing no harm. All five volumes of the Russia Report passed through his shop for classification review. We greatly appreciate his efforts, their efforts, to protect our secrets and ensure the American people were able to see our work.

I also want to thank Senator Sasse for his perspective, as an historian and an academic, and his leadership in ensuring that declassification is done properly, while again protecting our investment in our Intelligence Community.

Of course the Vice Chairman, who has taken an interest in this, and Senator Moran who was here today. And on this Committee, especially Senator Wyden, who has been a leader – perhaps the leader, not perhaps the leader — on trying to reform the declassification process. So thank you Senator Moran for being here.

 

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