Secrecy News

DoD Classifies Data on Afghanistan Oversight

Updated below

In a startlingly indiscriminate classification action that officials termed “unprecedented,” U.S. General John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, ordered the classification of a broad range of previously public information concerning operations in that country.

How has the $25 million authorized by Congress for women in the Afghan army been used? What are the definitions of the terms “unavailable” and “present for duty”? What is the total amount of funding that the U.S. has expended on salaries for the Afghan National Police?

The answers to those questions, and more than a hundred others that had formerly been subject to public disclosure, are now considered classified information. The newly classified data was withheld from disclosure in the public version of the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that was released today.

“The classification of this volume of data for SIGAR’s quarterly report is unprecedented,” the new report stated. “The decision leaves SIGAR for the first time in six years unable to publicly report on most of the U.S.-taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip, and sustain the [Afghan National Security Forces].”

General Campbell defended his action (which was first reported today in the New York Times) in a letter to the SIGAR appended to the report.

“While I cannot comment upon the precise reason why certain information was considered unclassified in the past, I can advise that given the risks that continue to exist to our forces and those of Afghanistan, I have directed that sensitive operational information or related materials, that could be used by those who threaten the force, or Afghan forces, be classified at an appropriate level,” General Campbell wrote. “With lives literally on the line, I am sure that you can join me in recognizing that we must be careful to avoid providing sensitive information to those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces, particularly information that can be used by such opposing forces to sharpen their attacks.”

The General did not explain how budget and contracting information, among other routine data, could be used to sharpen attacks against allied forces.

The new classification action highlights the inadequacy of existing mechanisms for correcting excessive, abusive or mistaken classification decisions.

In principle, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office has the authority under executive order to overrule or modify General Campbell’s sweeping classification decision. But that authority, which has never yet been exercised in the 35 years of ISOO’s existence, may have finally atrophied beyond recovery.

Congressional complaints about overclassification, as in the case of the summary of the Senate report on CIA interrogation, tend to underscore the view that classification is an executive branch prerogative, and paradoxically to strengthen it.

A 2013 Department of Defense Inspector General report noted that out of a small sample of 220 DoD documents, at least ten percent were misclassified or overclassified, including documents based on public information. At that time, the DoD Inspector General generously concluded that “we do not believe that those instances concealed violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevented embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; restrained competition; or prevented or delayed the release of information that did not require protection in the interest of national security.”

That deferential judgment will need to be amended in light of the expansive classification of oversight information concerning Afghanistan.

As a result of General Campbell’s decision, the Special Inspector General wrote, “much of the information SIGAR has used for the past six years to report on the $65 billion U.S. investment in the ANSF is no longer releasable to the public.”

Update: On February 2, the move to classify the relevant Afghanistan oversight data was partially rescinded, the New York Times reported.