But so far Cohen, who Trump appointed to run the board in January, is getting plaudits from longtime advocates for government openness and from fellow board members who share his goals.
“I think he’s shown some good leadership capabilities,” said former Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts, who was appointed to the panel by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year. “He’s been very inclusive. I don’t see him bullying anything through. He has been very open and engaged and listening to other people’s opinions, on the basis of consensus.”
In an interview, Cohen outlined his agenda for overhauling the government classification system that Democrats and Republicans alike contend shields too many secrets from the public and hampers other government officials and contractors who need them to counter potential adversaries or ensure accountability.
He singled out special access programs, or SAPs, which contain some of the most closely guarded national security secrets and which only very few officials are privy to.
“It is very hard for Congress and civilian leadership to conduct oversight of these programs,” said Cohen, who was appointed to the board in January just before he stepped down as acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. “More work needs to be done. The board is committed to advocating for as much transparency as possible.”
The board’s members, some of whom are appointed by the president and others by congressional leaders from both parties, are also pressing Biden to open decades-old government archives.
On Monday, Cohen, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, penned a letter to the president on their behalf urging him to overrule intelligence agencies seeking to withhold portions of 12,000 records related to the Kennedy assassination that are supposed to be released next month.
“We understand that agencies are asking you to extend the postponement of public disclosure for parts of many records subject to the JFK Act,” Cohen wrote, adding that in order to “bolster the American people’s confidence and trust in their government, the board unanimously recommends that you limit any further postponements of public disclosures of the Kennedy assassination records to the absolute minimum.”
Cohen, asked what secrets he thinks have yet to be released, responded, “Sadly, I think many interesting historical documents will remain classified and may cover topics related to Cuba or intelligence relationships we have had.”
A National Security Council spokesperson said Wednesday that, as required by law, “President Biden will be issuing a determination by October 26th concerning further JFK Assassination Act disclosures,” adding that “the president’s action will be informed by the recommendations of the National Archivist.”
It’s all part of a broader effort by strange bedfellows who appear to be setting aside their partisan differences to rein in a government classification system they consider out of control.
Steven Aftergood, a leading advocate for open government who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said of Cohen’s appointment: “It struck me as a peculiar choice because he had been a controversial figure and not someone who had been identified with the need for classification reform.”
Nevertheless, “he has an agenda and wants to advance the mission of the board,” Aftergood said. “I would like him to succeed.”
But Cohen’s role is likely to raise some eyebrows given his history of clashing with other with other national security officials during the Trump years. He was removed from his post on the National Security Council in 2017 after unverified allegations he shared classified information to a member of Congress, before being brought back to fill increasingly senior administration posts.
Cohen’s perch is also unusual given how aggressively the Biden administration has moved to kick Trump appointees off advisory boards. But unlike most of those, which were established by the executive branch, the declassification panel was created by Congress, and its members serve fixed terms.
Trump also appointed several intelligence veterans to the board, including Paul-Noel Chretien, a former CIA and Justice Department lawyer; Michael Lawrence, who worked for the CIA and National Security Agency; and Benjamin Powell, a former Air Force officer and FBI official who was general counsel for the director of national intelligence.
Also appointed to the board last year by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was Trey Gowdy, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who represented Trump during his first impeachment in the House.
But the vice chair of the board is Alissa Starzak, a former Pentagon and CIA lawyer who worked for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California when she chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee. Starzak was appointed in 2018 by then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Another recent addition is Tierney, the former congressman who now is executive director of the progressive Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. (Two of the nine positions remain vacant, one yet to be filled by the Senate majority leader and one by the president.)
“I’ve been impressed with the people on the board,” Tierney said in an interview. “None of them seem to take a partisan approach to it. I find people all sort of agreeing that we need to have the public know as much as they possibly can and we should try to get things declassified if at all possible.
“That was the intent of the law and that was the intent of putting this committee together,” he added. “Everyone seems to be rowing in the right direction.”
The scale of the challenge, however, is enormous. Tierney reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September 2020 that “one intelligence agency estimated it created approximately 1 petabyte of classified data every 18 months.”
“That is equivalent to approximately 1 trillion pieces of paper,” he testified. “This agency estimated that, using current manual declassification review processes, it would take two million employees one year to review this volume of information.”
The advisory board, which resides at the National Archives and Records Administration, was created by Congress in 2000 to help the president make policy decisions, enhance congressional oversight and promote “the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions.”
For much of the past two decades, however, the board has either been vacant or lacked resources, according to John Powers, associate director for classification management at NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office, which supports the board’s work.
The board was reinstated and made permanent by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020.
Aftergood noted that it does not have the authority to declassify government information, but “it has the power to elevate issues and to bring them to the attention of White House officials. And that’s not nothing.”
Cohen said one of his major priorities is to advise President Biden and other administration officials of the need to reduce the level of classification of space-related programs so that more government officials, contractors and foreign allies who need access have it.
“I consistently hear from space professionals in the government and private sector that the cost of over classification is becoming so burdensome on the industry that it is suppressing innovation and the development of cutting-edge space technologies,” he said.
He said in his experience the unnecessary levels of secrecy and use of special access security measures are often driven more by a desire for control than to protect national security.
“There is an emerging cultural problem within the Department of Defense and the [intelligence community],” Cohen said. “If something is not a SAP it is viewed as not being worthy. You have all of these people that want to build their empire. They are very desperate to have a new SAP … because that becomes a badge of affirmation of the program’s value. That obviously encourages the creation of more SAPs and in turn leads to less oversight.”
The push to reduce the classification of space and other programs also has the backing of some top generals and members of Congress.
The bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House last week includes a provision requiring the Space Force to “conduct a review of each classified program managed under the authority of the Space Force to determine whether the level of classification of the program could be changed to a lower level or the program could be declassified.”
Foreign policy experts assert there are myriad ways that excessive classification is harming national security.
The “reflexive habit to over classify is undermining the ability to secure the best people and firms, slowing critical innovation rates, lengthening acquisition timelines, and depriving our allies the information they need to work closely with and trust the United States,” said Henry Sokolski, a former Pentagon official who is now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Cohen said he plans to use his perch to bring such concerns to the attention of the Oval Office.
“The board is considering holding meetings on this topic,” Cohen added. “We need to do a better job of advocating for systematic increases in transparency. Ultimately compartmentalization is a derivative of the president’s power to determine what is and is not classified.”
He cited as a model the board’s recent advocacy for releasing secret government files on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We started talking about this, we started blogging about it, we had public hearings and when we started doing that, all of a sudden … there was legislation that was introduced,” he said. “The board brought attention to the issue. We are particularly appreciative of President Biden’s efforts thus far to prioritize the release of key classified records related to the 9/11 terror attacks.”
But Aftergood said that making government operations more transparent to the public will require far more engagement from the president and the Congress.
“There are lots of things crying out to be addressed in classification policy,” Aftergood said.
He cited the continued reliance on paper documents that require years to be reviewed to determine what can be disclosed and what portions should remain classified — and then processed for release.
“Nobody should be looking at paper documents anymore, or redacting on paper as they still do,” he said. “There are all kinds of innovations that are ripe to be made but have not yet been made.”
The declassification board, he said, “could help to advance those changes.”
Powers, the National Archives official overseeing the classification system, said major reforms to how the government compiles and retains secrets are long overdue.
“The classification system is a beast at this point,” he said in an interview. “It’s 80 years old and we’re still trying to turn a battleship but we haven’t turned it. And our national security threats are really completely different now and we have not reacted in a way we should.
“That is certainly what the board is saying,” he added. “They really do want to figure out how to get the government to change this culture and to think differently about classification and declassification.”