It’s no secret that many think America’s classification system is no longer up to the task of protecting the nation or its secrets.
In late 2008, a Homeland Security advisory panel chaired by William Webster—the only person to ever run both the FBI and the CIA—described the classification system as “broken,” and recommended that the department’s incoming secretary find a way to make Americans safer by expanding information access. The 9-11 Commission held that the “long-term costs of overclassification” were “substantial” to both safety and America’s pocketbook. Those in government also see problems.
“When you’re dealing with these things everyday, I very often ask: Why is this classified?” then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said while being questioned at a 2004 hearing by then Senator Hillary Clinton. “Overclassification is, I agree, something that very properly ought to be addressed in a serious way.”
The biggest question facing stakeholders in the classification system—journalists, historians, and government and military officials—is what the Obama administration will do to reform a rickety framework, reduce costs and backlogs, foster broader access to historical records, and promote sharing of important intelligence information between analysts working in many government entities.
Many of these problems are the legacy of the paper-based classification system born in March of 1940, when, with Europe at war, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8381, imposing penalties for the unauthorized distribution of specially marked documents.
Since then, ten other executive orders have attempted to plumb the twisted lines intersecting security and accountability, reform and bureaucratic intransigence. In late May, President Barack Obama entered the fray by signing a presidential memo tasking General Jim Jones, his National Security Advisor, with laying the groundwork for a new executive order.
While Obama’s memo called for recommendations by August 25, the group remains at work on a narrow range of issues. Representatives from the government agencies with the greatest stake in the classification system—the military, the intelligence community, nuclear secret keepers, and the National Archives among them—have been meeting on and off since Obama signed the order, sometimes weekly, working through subject areas that the order is likely to address.
“The outcome is uncertain, but at least some of the participants are taking the task seriously and want to do more than a token effort,” says Steven Aftergood, a longtime secrecy watcher at the Federation of American Scientists. “There is remarkable consensus—not just at the National Security Council but in the national security agencies themselves—that the classification system is broken. It is not serving the interests of the agencies in performing their missions efficiently. They are not concerned about freedom of information or things like government accountability, but they are concerned about having a logical, predictable, rational information security policy. And there’s a sense that this is the last chance that we have for a decade—maybe for a generation—to get the classification system right.”
But even if there is consensus about the system’s ills, it looks unlikely that the review process will likely produce any drastic changes.
“These E.O.s are typically not revolutionary. Rather, they are evolutionary,” says Jay Bosanko, head of the Information Security Oversight Office, the government’s internal classification monitoring body. “Typically they evolve and the concepts are modified. New concepts are introduced that are revolutionary, but the orders themselves tend to be a little slow to change.”
The biggest potential change suggested in Obama’s memo, one almost certain to end up in an eventual executive order, would fulfill his campaign promise to create a National Declassification Center in order to accelerate the declassification of historical records. The declassification center is not a new idea; it was described and endorsed in a 1997 report produced by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s blue ribbon commission on secrecy.
The general concept is simple. In order to declassify a document under the current system, every agency that has an “equity” in the document—meaning they produced material within—no matter how old the document or relevant information, must take a look and approve its release.
But this process is uncoordinated—there’s no permanent central location where the agencies’ declassification representatives can congregate to review documents together. Instead, documents are passed around between agencies, meaning that each agency can’t easily determine what has already been flagged or redacted by a colleague agency. While there’s some prioritization of the classification queue by relative age or topic, there’s no guarantee that any of these agencies—many of which have a poor reputation for understaffing and underfunding declassification efforts—will promptly examine a document once it’s been passed on to them for review.