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Under Trump, Expert Advisory Panels on the Decline

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019.

The move to dismantle the Jason scientific panel follows other Trump administration efforts to abolish or delay the work of independent groups that have been a staple of the U.S. government for decades.

U.S. officials say many panels simply add bureaucracy and costs. Opponents of the closures see the change as a move to silence outside criticism in areas of significant public concern.

“This White House has set the tone that science is unimportant if it conflicts with their political positions,” said Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2002 to 2007 and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

A Department of Justice panel studying forensic science, for instance, was disbanded in April 2017 within three months of Trump taking office. The panel was unpopular with some prosecutors and tough-on-crime proponents because it highlighted concerns over law enforcement techniques used to prosecute criminals, such as the use of bite marks to identify people and expert analysis of hair follicles and smudged fingerprints. The DOJ said the panel was never intended to be permanent, and that its work is being continued in-house.

A Central Intelligence Agency panel of historians that advises the agency on declassification issues was put on hold this year. That move followed tensions over a new policy members said reduced the amount of material being declassified, said Columbia University professor Robert Jervis, the outgoing chair of the Historical Declassification Advisory Panel for the CIA.

CIA spokeswoman Sara Lichterman said the panel would be reconstituted with new members and begin meeting again later this year. “The CIA is committed to the public release of historical information, and the Historical Review Panel will remain an important and valuable resource,” she said.

Trump aides in the White House Office of Public Liaison ordered a second panel of historians disbanded in 2017, said panel chair Richard Immerman, a Temple University history professor. The administration reversed course after the State Department said the panel had been created by Congressional statute and could not be disbanded by the White House. The group, the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, ensures that the official record of U.S. foreign policy is a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record.”

“There was grave concern about the politicization of the committee,” said Immerman.

Members of a State Department panel dealing with nuclear nonproliferation, the Independent Security Advisory Board, were told in 2018 the panel had been suspended, members said. It provides independent insight on arms control, disarmament and international security.

The panel’s charter calls for it to meet four times a year, but it hasn’t met since November 30, 2016. A State Department spokeswoman said the board remains active.

Two Navy committees, the Naval Research Advisory Committee and the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel, learned in February they were being disbanded. “This decision is in line with the Defense Department’s goal to improve the utility of advisory committees,” said Joshua Kelsey, a spokesman for Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

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