Export Control Policy as a Guide to Secrecy Reform

“The problem we face,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last week, “is that the current system, which has not been significantly altered since the end of the Cold War, originated and evolved in a very different era with a very different array of concerns in mind.”  He was talking about the U.S. export control process, but with minor differences he might just as well have been speaking about the national security classification system, since an increasingly obsolete model of security underlies both policy regimes.

“America’s decades-old, bureaucratically labyrinthine system does not serve our 21st century security needs or our economic interests,” Secretary Gates said April 20 at an event hosted by Business Executives for National Security.  “Our security interests would be far better served by a more agile, transparent, predictable and efficient regime.  Tinkering around the edges of the current system will not do.”

The White House expressed a similar view in an April 20 fact sheet. The current U.S. export control system, it said, “is overly complicated, contains too many redundancies, and tries to protect too much.”  The scope of export controls is so broad that it “dilutes our ability to adequately control and protect those key items and technologies that must be protected for our national security.  The goal of the reform effort is ‘to build high walls around a smaller yard’ by focusing our enforcement efforts on our ‘crown jewels’,” the White House said.

In fact, the export control system is so messed up, senior defense officials told reporters at an April 19 press briefing, that “the system itself poses a threat to national security.”

The Administration’s proposed solution for export control policy is based on principles of simplification, consolidation and a focus on the highest value items to be controlled.  This translates into a single export control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement agency, and a single information technology system for the entire export control program.

A similar approach could be applied to classification policy, perhaps in the following way.

A single classification system:  Currently there are two parallel classification systems, one for general national security information, based on executive order, and one for nuclear weapons-related information, based on the Atomic Energy Act.  In many areas of defense and foreign policy, the two systems overlap, generating unnecessary complexity and confusion.  The dual classification systems also significantly complicate the declassification process.  Moving to a single classification system would simplify the classification process, facilitate training of personnel, and increase declassification productivity.  A useful interim step would be to transfer the nuclear weapons classification category known as “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) into the general national security classification system so that FRD records — on topics such as stockpile size and weapon storage locations abroad — could be handled and declassified just like other records containing national security information.

A consolidated set of classification guides:  Currently there are nearly three thousand classification guides in government that prescribe what information is to be classified and at what level.  Instead there could be maybe three– one for defense operations and technology, one for intelligence, and one for foreign policy (and perhaps one more for nuclear weapons information if the two classification systems are combined).  This kind of consolidation would help promote standardization across agencies, including ease of correction and change of classification policies.  It would also facilitate oversight and enforcement of proper classification practices.

An enhanced oversight mechanism:  If there is going to be increased uniformity and consistency in classification across the government, then a strong oversight mechanism will be needed to adjudicate and resolve the inevitable conflicts that will arise among individual agencies, and the deviations between policy and practice.  The existing Information Security Oversight Office could help fulfill this role if the President grants it the power and the responsibility to overrule erroneous or unwise classification decisions.

A drastic reduction in scope of classification:  Just as the export control system “tries to protect too much,” the same is true in spades of the classification system.  (Random example: The total dollar cost of the CIA’s CORONA satellite program, which ended in 1972, is still considered classified information.)  “Frederick the Great’s famous maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing certainly applies to export control,” Secretary Gates said last week.  The corresponding view in classification policy is Justice Potter Stewart’s familiar statement that “when everything is classified, then nothing is classified….”  The forthcoming Fundamental Classification Guidance Review that was required by executive order 13526 should help to reverse the growth of the classification system over the next two years.  But other targeted measures may also be needed to achieve the optimum classification state of “high walls around narrow areas.”

“The proposition that a more focused and streamlined system actually helps our national security can go against conventional wisdom,” Secretary Gates said.  Nevertheless, “I believe it is the right approach, and it is urgently needed, given the harmful effects of continuing with the existing set of outdated processes, institutions and assumptions.”

The Obama Administration is just beginning to consider the possible outlines of a future classification system that is “fundamentally transformed.”

“I … look forward to reviewing recommendations from the study that the National Security Advisor will undertake in cooperation with the Public Interest Declassification Board to design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system,” President Obama wrote when the latest executive order on classification policy was issued on December 29.