Blair: Intel Classification Policy Needs “Fundamental Work”

“There is a great deal of over-classification,” admitted Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, at his confirmation hearing last week.

“Some of it, I think, is done for the wrong reasons, to try to hide things from the light of day. Some of it is because in our system, there is no incentive not to do that, and there are penalties to do the reverse, in case you get something wrong and don’t classify it.”

“So I think we need to do fundamental work on the system,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden at the January 22 hearing.

“I’ll be working to see if we can come up with a different approach that incentivizes it at the right level and that informs not only those of you who have security clearances on this committee but the wider interested public whose support we need,” Adm. Blair said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse pursued the same question.  “My experience,” the Senator said, “is that, over and over and over again, we have seen official secrecy used not for national security purposes, but to mislead the public and to frame — or more particularly, mis-frame — an outside, political debate. Will you pledge to us that you will take this trust of secrecy that you are given as Director of National Intelligence and use it only to protect national security and not to manipulate public opinion or frame or mis-frame political debates?”

“Absolutely, Senator,” Adm. Blair replied.

The DNI-nominee also told Sen. Kit Bond and Sen. Whitehouse that he favored prosecution of leakers of classified information.  “If I could ever catch one of those it would be very good to prosecute them.”

He suggested that there might be new technical steps that could be taken to identify leakers.

“If confirmed,” he added, “I would like to come to talk to you about some ideas where we can build in some technical, some procedural safeguards into agencies so that it’s not a case of going back afterwards and trying to get records and question people but we have some tools that will let everybody who works for the government know that if you are going to pass classified information to a reporter or to someone, there will be a trace of it which will make it relatively quick to identify you as the one who did it,” Adm. Blair told Sen. Whitehouse.

Presumably this refers to improved tracking of classified intelligence “records,” not of “information.”

In answers to pre-hearing questions (pdf), Adm. Blair said that he favored continued publication of the annual intelligence budget total.  “It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public,” Blair said.

He also endorsed declassification review of 25 year old classified intelligence records.

“While much intelligence information remains sensitive even at 25 years, that which can be released to the public should be. Intelligence — especially the intelligence that informed key policy decisions — can and should ultimately become part of the country’s historical record.” [at p. 55]

The profound confusion that prevails in intelligence classification policy was recognized last year in an internal report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (Secrecy News, April 10, 2008). Even the most basic concepts of classification policy, it said, are open to question and interpretation.

“The definitions of ‘national security’ and what constitutes ‘intelligence’ — and thus what must be classified — are unclear,” the ODNI report stated (pdf).

A new directive signed by outgoing DNI Mike McConnell on January 21 is intended to “foster an enduring culture of responsible sharing and collaboration within an integrated [intelligence community]” and to breakdown traditional “stove pipes” that inhibit communication within the government.  See “Discovery and Dissemination or Retrieval of Information Within the Intelligence Community,” Intelligence Community Directive 501 (pdf),  January 21, 2009.

The continuing classification of obsolete Cold War intelligence satellite imagery, to the disappointment of space historians and others, was examined in “A ray of sunshine into a dark world: the future declassification of satellite reconnaissance information” by Dwayne Day in The Space Review, January 26.

0 thoughts on “Blair: Intel Classification Policy Needs “Fundamental Work”

  1. The incoming DNI correctly makes the point that there is no incentive not to incorrectly classify and over classify.

    It’s more problematic, even assuming uniform and precise definitions of national security there is no systemic independent testing for a significant correlation between those uniform and precise definitions and the original classification authority or between the original classification authority and derivative classification actions for individual documents or portions thereof.

    Of course this is destructive and debilitating as more unnecessary and useless derivative classification actions occur. The system becomes clogged and overwhelmed just tracking and accounting for documents. There’s no time to test whether the documents were ever correctly classified or to ensure they get correctly (re)classified in the first place. Such testing may entail costly meetings and discussions with a variety of program personnel. Most of whom would rather be anywhere but in a meeting discussing what is the correct classification level for a piece of information or document!

    Wonder how many program managers, engineers, and others have been upbraided by program security for failing to account for an unnecessarily or uselessly classified document?

  2. I believe the system is actually much more broken than that.

    It is popular to point out examples of over-classification for dishonest reasons. However, despite the incentives to do otherwise, there are also many examples of material that is too lightly classified, usually because it is too difficult for some poor schlub at the bottom to bend the ear of the classification authority.

    A notorious recent example was a criminal case which collapsed when it turned out that a certain piece of software (that had been mishandled) was only classified as RESTRICTED, despite containing detailed parametric data about the design of US weapons that were classified TOP SECRET and codeword compartmentalized. Another example would be fundamental research into the design parameters of EFPs. That was cleared to be published in unclass peer reviewed journals because the Russkies already knew that stuff. Well, the Russkies may have already known about it, but the Iranians very probably learned it from those engineering journals.

    The real issue is that the whole system of “levels” was an expedient used to make management of information practical in the pre-computer age. At a very basic level, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense: if you can’t afford the time and effort to clear someone properly, why are you even giving that person access to CONFIDENTIAL data? And if a person is in fact completely trustworthy with CONFIDENTIAL data, why do you think he or she would suddenly turn traitor if given access to TOP SECRET? Sure, you want compartments in order to minimize losses when you make a mistake, but that concept is completely orthogonal to classification levels. Classification levels exists because older systems couldn’t manage compartments efficiently, plus it gives us a nice false sense of security about the fact that many classified information users are not fully vetted.

    The whole system needs a total overhaul for the 21st century.

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