Summary of the Meeting of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group (NS-TAG) - November 4, 2020
Held via Videoconference
- Michèle Audette
- William Baker
- Khadija Cajee
- Mary Francoli
- Harpreet Jhinjar
- Thomas Juneau (co-chair)
- Myles Kirvan
- Justin Mohammed
- Bessma Momani
- Dominic Rochon (co-chair)
- Jeffrey Roy
- “Transparency by Design”: Definition, Evaluation and Institutionalization of National Security Transparency – Part Two: The United States’ Experience.
Invited Guests and Speakers:
- Ben Huebner – Chief, Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
- Michael Thomas – Deputy Transparency Officer, Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy, and Transparency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
- Alex Joel – Scholar in Residence, American University Washington College of Law, and previous Chief of the Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency
National Security Community Members Present (as observers):
Canada Border Security Agency, Canada Revenue Agency, Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Communications Security Establishment, Department of National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, Public Safety Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Treasury Board Secretariat.
- Opening of the Meeting and Roll Call
- Discussion Session with Guests: “Transparency by Design”: Definition, Evaluation and Institutionalization of National Security Transparency – Part Two: The United States’ Experience
- Update to the NS-TAG’s Terms of Reference and Election of the Non-Governmental Co-Chair for the Second Term (Year Two).
- Year One Report Production and Release
- Date of the Next Meeting and Closing
The fifth virtual NS-TAG meeting took place on November 4, 2020, on the theme, “Transparency by Design: Definition, Evaluation and Institutionalization of National Security Transparency – Part Two: The United States’ Experience.”
During the first session of the meeting,the three guest speakers spoke about their experience working at the United States’ Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency, within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They discussed the fundamental goals of transparency and why it is important, both for national security institutions and for the public, and how they approach it – as a good business practice. They also shared considerations for institutionalizing and measuring transparency, as well as outlining a number of transparency initiatives led by the Office that had widespread implications across the United States’ national security and intelligence community.
During the second session, amendments to the NS-TAG’s Terms of Reference were presented and agreed upon by the Group. These changes specify the length of the non-government co-chair and vice co-chair’s term, and clarify that incumbents are eligible for re-election. Once these changes were adopted, the NS-TAG members unanimously re-elected Thomas Juneau as non-government co-chair for a second term, retroactive to August 23, 2020.
During the third session, Public Safety’s Transparency Secretariat updated members on the production of the NS-TAG’s first report. Members identified a few final changes to make to the report. Members received draft communications, social media, and engagement plans highlighting what the Transparency Secretariat can do to support and promote the report’s release. The non-government co-chair suggested that the Group’s plans to promote and raise public awareness of the report should be discussed during the next meeting, and requested that members provide him with an idea of what they are willing and able – on a voluntary basis – to do to engage stakeholders on the report.
Key Takeaways of the Discussion with Guests:
- For transparency to work, ongoing buy-in is required from both the senior leadership and employees at all levels. In the US, the biggest obstacle to transparency efforts in the security and intelligence community was middle management, who were initially very focused on potential risks.
- Being more transparent is an investment in building public trust. National security institutions should aim to “get ahead of the story.” In the US, this meant developing a strategic approach – including establishing processes for how to mobilize experts and information, as well as introducing principles for transparency – as opposed to reacting to the crisis of the moment. Developing proactive and effective transparency mechanisms will help in situations where information needs to be acknowledged, highlighted, or publicly released in a quick manner. It is when a crisis hits that the public pays attention.
- Organizations have to explain to the public how they carry out their mission. In the US national security and intelligence context, a fundamental objective of transparency is to enable public debate and dialogue that is grounded in accurate and factual information. Demonstrating organizational successes or performance is secondary.
- Guest speakers identified the following key steps to institutionalizing transparency: building consensus on values and overarching principles; identifying champions of transparency and supporting their sustained engagement; professionalizing the process of transparency; putting in place an enabling infrastructure and necessary tools; training the workforce to have the required technical skills to perform transparency processes and; measuring whether transparency efforts and actions are meeting the public’s expectations.
- Building transparency into the information that is released is equally important. For the United States, the website “www.intel.gov” demonstrates how to build an information repository with the necessary functionality to support online transparency activities.
- Procedures to collect and retain information have been rewritten at the unclassified level to allow for public release. This led to the reconsideration of how procedures are written initially so that they can be readily released, which supports transparency by design.
- Prioritizing the release of information and seeking feedback helps to emphasize the information that is of most interest to the public. Determining what information has the highest appeal also involves considering stakeholder input and measuring page views.
- Engagement can be conducted by transparency staff, but also by senior officials, recruiters, and intelligence officers. A best practice is to inform non-government organizations, members of the media, and other stakeholders when information is released publicly, and to discuss the information in-person. This approach may also be beneficial in the context of Freedom of Information Act requests (Access to Information Requests in Canada) by engaging in a dialogue with the requesters and asking what they want to know directly.
- Guest speakers noted the importance of diversity and inclusion, both in their hiring practices and in their considerations of how to be transparent. National security and intelligence agencies have had greater success engaging with specific communities and diversifying their workforce when they admitted their mistakes and communicated with as much openness as possible. They also release a demographic report of the national security and intelligence community.
- The US intelligence community put a lot of effort into releasing historic documents (thousands of pages) to explain what they do. Declassifying historical records is an effective way of providing non-sensitive information on national security processes and operations, and can sometimes have contemporary impacts. Guest speakers shared the example of the first instance of “declassification diplomacy,” where the United States government researched and released records relating to human rights abuses in Argentina between 1975 and 1984.
- National security and intelligence organizations release legal opinions on how they interpret their legal authorities so that the public can understand their limits. Later on, this practice became enshrined in law. National security and intelligence organizations’ directives are also made available to the public. Information on authorities, made available through an annual report with statistics, is accompanied by a narrative to provide context and background. This supports informed public debates on these authorities. Moreover, the US government has engaged with non-governmental organizations in good faith on legal issues (i.e. access to information). Although this may prove challenging at times, they try to establish parameters and find ways to accommodate some discussions to enhance understanding on both sides, which has the potential to develop more constructive engagement and potentially avoid litigation.
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