NDC Director's Comments at the July 22,2010 PIDB

Below are comments made by NDC Director Sheryl Shenberger at the July 22, 2010 meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB).  She discusses her previous work as it relates to the NDC and reflects on public input into the NDC process.

My background as it relates to NDC work

My declassification-specific work gives me the expertise in processes, the familiarity with other agency programs, and the confidence to question what we’ve ‘always done.’  My substantive expertise in Intelligence gives me both the intuitive sense and real world experience to understand, appreciate, and advocate for what requires protection. 

In fact, while I was with the CIA Declassification Center 25-year program, I worked with Mr. Briick to push the agency’s release of OSS records.   During my time with the CIA 25-year program, we moved from guidelines that required as little grey area judgment as possible (with a large review staff and millions of pages to review, you must have a limited use of many individual judgments in order to reduce chaos and maintain consistent quality of review and release) to a reviewing unit that literally pushed other units to consider narrower redactions or more responsive reviews for public consumption.

My experience has not been just with federal records. I have overseen special reviews of Watergate and Kissinger materials, and I was POC for government-wide review of Presidential Library referrals through the Remote Archives Capture (RAC) project.  Finally, from 2003 through 2006 I was Chief of the CIA Team at NARA where I facilitated CIA review efforts (the complexity and challenge of subtle equities in other government agency documents) and collaborated extensively with NARA to improve declassification and our own records handling at NARA. 

These experiences give me the credibility to lead a national declassification review effort that is designed to balance records handling with hands-on review, prioritization with production deadlines, collaboration with other agencies to draw upon the areas they are most expert with, and the smarts to want to help them make their own programs better. I know that when agencies do review and referral well it will filter down /travel up? to the NDC.  When we receive documents in good shape, physically as well as review-wise, we can process them and get them to the public faster.

Before we opened, Mr. Brick inquired as to my biggest challenge currently:  I would have to say that is “measuring progress.”  I look to a metrics capability that will allow us to track our progress against the backlog.  I want to allow these new NDC processes to take hold, give them time to develop to their fullest, and measure their success.

Public responsiveness

In the spirit of openness, we published our draft Review Prioritization Plan for comment, both written as well as oral at the Public Forum we held last month.  I was glad to receive the wide range of suggestions and critiques as I believe they add to the collaborative, cooperative atmosphere that I want to embody the work of the NDC.  Several themes were recurring: 1) sincere concern that certain records are not being treated as quickly as their historical value would suggest.  In that category, they particularly noted the remaining JFK records, Church Committee, Watergate records, 9-11 Commission records, Presidential Library records (which are a priority for review in the NDC).  2) Advice on what they would like to see prioritized, such as secret and top secret records of the Secretaries of Defense and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA) that date back to the 1940s and “are critically important for historical understanding of national security decision-making and policy implementation during the Cold War.”   3) Feedback on how we process, such as 1) suggesting we provide information on the file series level rather than the record group level because many organizations, especially veterans groups, may be researching records for legal and litigation purposes, in order to seek medical and other benefits, or for other reasons. They need that sort of narrowing; and 2) for us to spend 50% of our processing time on the oldest documents first.  But the comment I took most to heart was this one about the use of ‘public input’:    

 “For better or worse, not all “public input” is equal,” according to the author.   Speaking to us at NDC, the writer continued, “When you use the term “high interest,” are you referring solely to high number (volume) of queries? Or does that also involve the much trickier issue of strongly applied external pressure?  Pressure potentially can come from researchers who demand that maximum resources be assigned to process records that they want released. In an ideal world, complaints and threats to use one’s powerful outside “connections” would have no affect on such matters. The quiet, uncomplaining researcher should receive the same treatment as the complainer. Although it isn’t always easy for employees of archival institutions to push back, I hope NARA and other repositories are able to keep such pressure in perspective in deciding how to assess stakeholders’ needs and how best to assign resources.”

That is a fine piece of advice.

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