How the CIA’s Publications Review Board safeguards the nation

CIA seal The Publications Review Board (PRB) at the CIA helps protect classified information. PRB officers review, coordinate and formally approve all proposed official and non-official CIA-related materials intended for publication by current and former Agency personnel and other individuals who are obligated to follow the PRB process. It’s an office the public may not think of when they think CIA, but its mission is essential. The PRB protects secrets in the interest of national security, while allowing as much transparency as possible through the careful review of material intended to be shared with the general public.

That’s how the Agency itself described the activities and mission of the PRB in a brief article posted on April 4 on the CIA’s own Web site.

“We act as another set of eyes to safeguard sensitive information,” said the PRB’s chairman, who was not identified in the article. “If an author misses something, either because of an oversight or because they were not even aware that the information is classified, we’ll catch it.”

Below, the PRB chairman talks about his experiences in this role and provides an insider’s look at the PRB.

Q: What is the PRB and why is it important for the CIA to have an office like this?

A: The focus of the PRB is primarily to identify classified information that would damage the national security of the United States and remove it before it is published. We are aware that people have first amendment rights and we do not intend to interfere with people wanting to tell their stories, but we must ensure that classified information is not revealed.

Q: Tell us about the   history of the PRB. 

A: The PRB has been   around as a formal entity since 1976, though initially the work was only a   part-time responsibility for the directorate subject matter representatives.   More recently, the volume of the submissions and the potential complexity of   the manuscripts required a dedicated staff — in addition to directorate   representation — to effectively, and in a timely manner, review material.

Q: When did the role of the PRB expand and how is it different from its founding days?

A: Submissions continued to increase in the early part of the 2000’s, especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the launch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In 2007, a full-time Board was established with members from each directorate of the Agency (and the Director’s Area) physically co-located to work on requests as quickly and efficiently as possible. Each Board member has significant experience within his/her directorate, allowing for a well-rounded understanding of all potential submissions and how they relate to Agency equities.

Q: Explain how the PRB process functions from submission to publication.

A: In addition to the Board members from each directorate, the heartbeat of the PRB is made up of a small group of professional and highly-dedicated researchers, reviewers and analysts. They receive the initial submission of the material, make a determination as to which directorates are affected by the information contained within it, and determine if other Intelligence Community entities should be involved. If so, they reach out to them for their input.

Our internal team also does its own independent research to determine what is classified and what is not classified. Members of the team compile all of the information received and review it to identify any potential classification issues. Once a full review has been completed, the lead reviewer responds back to the author as quickly as possible with a breakdown of what needs to be removed and what is approved for publication.

Q: Is the PRB unique to the CIA or do other government agencies have a similar department or process for reviewing information?

A: We are not the only organization within the IC or the federal government to have a pre-publication review process, but I would say we are one of the most comprehensive. The Agency has given us many resources — both people and funding — to make sure we perform our duties to safeguard classified information effectively.

Q: What do your PRB officers enjoy most about working in the PRB?
A: I believe the general consensus is that the work we do — safeguarding sensitive, classified information — matters and ensures that the Agency will be able to meet its mission requirements. It is certainly intellectually stimulating, encompasses the full-gamut of intelligence matters, and no two manuscript reviews are the same. One minute we are focused on an op-ed piece from a former senior officer, the next a draft of a James Bond-like screenplay from a current contractor, and the next a 400-page memoir written by a former case officer.

In short order, members of the PRB staff learn an enormous amount of information about the Agency’s past and current operations. We review what Agency officers have written, but are also familiar with what others write about the Agency to ensure we have as complete a picture of the information as possible.