DNI Security Official Appointed to be New ISOO Director

In a step that will shape the future course of U.S. government secrecy policy, President Obama approved the appointment of John P. Fitzpatrick, a security official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to be the next Director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), effective August 1.

The ISOO Director, sometimes referred to as the “classification czar,” is the most senior official (other than the President himself) responsible for oversight of the national security classification system.  The Director monitors agency compliance with classification policies, and leads the development of changes in those policies.  In his oversight capacity, the ISOO Director is authorized and required to act on complaints and suggestions both from within the government and from members of the public.  The President has also empowered the ISOO Director to require the declassification of any information he deems to be improperly classified (though this authority has never been exercised in practice).

Mr. Fitzpatrick is a former director of the DNI Special Security Center, the inner sanctum of security policy within the U.S. intelligence community.  In theory, this background should give him the stature to command attention and respect throughout the far-flung secrecy bureaucracy.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s credentials as a proponent of secrecy reform are less clear.  But David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, called him “a strong advocate for information sharing and protection,” and said “he has demonstrated his ability to lead and oversee change both within and beyond the Intelligence Community throughout his career.”

“This experience uniquely positions him to lead ISOO and I look to him to improve transparency, openness, and access while ensuring that classified information is properly protected,” the Archivist wrote in a July 20 announcement to all NARA employees.  (ISOO is a component of the National Archives and Records Administration, though it takes policy direction from the White House.)

Among his professional achievements, it is noteworthy that Mr. Fitzpatrick helped foster significant changes in security clearance policy as director of the DNI Special Security Center.  Cutting against the grain of contemporary practice, he advanced new procedures that “would remove barriers for first- and second-generation Americans to be considered for IC security clearances.”

In some other areas, he seems to have fallen short.  Thus, in December 2010 he told the House Intelligence Committee that the precise number of security clearances throughout the government would be disclosed in a February 2011 report to Congress.  But when it was delivered, the report did not contain the information promised by Mr. Fitzpatrick.  That information — now due in another report — apparently has still not been transmitted.  The ODNI said last week that it was “privileged” and “pre-decisional.”  (See “Total Number of Security Clearances Still Unknown,” Secrecy News, May 27, 2011.)

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s appointment to be the fifth ISOO Director since the organization was established in 1978 comes at a particularly crucial moment in secrecy policy.  The national security classification system is under mounting pressure both to fulfill its core function of protecting genuine national security secrets and to eliminate the spurious accretions of decades of excessive secrecy.  The President has spoken of the need for a “fundamental transformation” of today’s classification system, which is an artifact of Cold War principles, politics and practices, though he did not provide any direction for such a transformation.  An effort is underway to rescind obsolete classification policies through the pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, but it is still uncertain whether this process will gain traction and produce results.

Within a fairly short period of time — probably not more than a year or two — it will become clear whether the secrecy system is responsive to such planned and deliberate reforms, or whether it will drift towards failure and irrelevance instead.  Accordingly, the ISOO under Mr. Fitzpatrick’s leadership could become more important than ever as a vehicle for secrecy reform– or it could prove inconsequential.