The inspector general of each executive branch agency that classifies national security information is required to produce an evaluation of the agency’s classification program by the end of September, pursuant to the Reducing Over-classification Act of 2010. The goal of the reviews is to identify policies and procedures “that may be contributing to persistent misclassification of material.”
This is not a straightforward assignment because classification is not a purely objective process that lends itself to external validation; rather, it is an expression of presidentially-delegated authority. And if proper classification is a matter of judgment, then so is overclassification.
“Classifying and controlling the dissemination of information is an inherently subjective process,” said the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, which prepared guidance earlier this year for other agencies’ inspectors general to help them conduct the required classification reviews.
“Key terminology, such as ‘over-classification’ and ‘damage to national security’ has not been defined [by executive order or regulation], causing those determinations to be made by personnel in the Departments and Agencies,” the DoD IG guidance observed.
But having achieved this insight, the DoD IG guidance does not consider those subjective “determinations” any further. Instead, it retreats into matters can be objectively assessed and measured, focusing on the faithful implementation of the executive order’s requirements. This is not a useless exercise, but if that is as far as the IG evaluations go, they will not have grasped the root of the problem.
The essence of over-classification is not located in mistaken markings of documents or in non-compliance with the formal procedures of the executive order. It is to be found above all in an official’s subjective “determination” that classification is necessary. Thus, for example, when an agency’s classification judgment is overruled by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel — which happens with some frequency — it is not because of an error in procedure but because of an error in judgment.
But the official DoD guidance that has been provided for conducting the pending Inspector General reviews is not well suited for identifying (much less correcting) such errors in classification judgment. That would require something akin to a peer review process that would evaluate individual classification decisions on their national security merits and, if appropriate, flag them for revision. Unfortunately, a probing review of this sort does not seem to be on the agenda of the Inspectors General.
On June 21, the Director of National Intelligence issued an updated version of Intelligence Community Directive 710 on Classification Management. The revised Directive somewhat belatedly reflects the requirements of the December 2009 executive order 13526 on classification policy.
So the forthcoming Inspector General review will be able to confirm that intelligence community classification guidance is now consistent with executive branch policy. But whether over-classification has thereby been reduced in the slightest is a separate question.