Last week, Kenneth L. Wainstein was quietly named to the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The appointment garnered barely any media coverage, despite the Board’s lofty mission: “to promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities.” In other words, the Board advises the White House on declassification policy.
Wainstein is not the first person you might think of with an interest in promoting government transparency. In fact, his work experience suggests a serious conflict of interest. According to his bio on his firm’s website, the University of Virginia grad spent 19 years at the Justice Department before being named Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. In his new job on the PIDB, he’ll be deciding on whether to declassify documents that he himself may have classified in the first place.
The conflict of interest is one of many on the Board. Most of the members are former government officials who worked at intelligence offices. Still, the potential for overlapping interests may not even matter. In 2012, they wrote a report on classification policy, Transforming the Security Classification System, that has effectively been ignored by the Obama administration.
Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News wrote about the topic in a blog post last week.
A deeper problem is that the Obama White House appears to be incapable of acting on the recommendations from the Board, even though it requested them. Nearly a year has passed since the Board’s last report, and no response from the White House has been forthcoming. It’s not even clear who would be expected to respond– the National Security Advisor? the Homeland Security Advisor? the Director of National Intelligence (who also serves as “Security Executive Agent”)?
The Project On Government Oversight supported the funding of the PIDB back in 2005, but later advocated for a moderation in the Board’s policy that would allow review of documents recommended by Congress without White House approval.
With little word from the Obama administration, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and James E. Risch (R-Idaho) introduced legislation in August intended to “facilitate and enhance the declassification of information that merits declassification, and for other purposes.” The bill is now waiting in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.