Secrecy News

Secrecy System to Undergo “Thoughtful Scrutiny”

The Obama Administration has begun a systematic examination of its national security classification policies, known as the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review (FCGR), in an effort to eliminate obsolete classification requirements and to reduce national security secrecy.

“The goal of the FCGR is to ensure agency classification guidance authorizes classification only in those specific instances necessary to protect national security,” wrote William A. Cira, Acting Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in a March 17 memorandum to executive branch officials.

“A reasonable outcome of the review overall, though not necessarily in the case of each program or guide, is to expect a reduction in classification activity across government,” he wrote.

Indeed, the first FCGR that was conducted in 2010-12 led to the elimination of “approximately 20% of DoD’s non-compartmented SCGs [security classification guides],” according to a Department of Defense report, thereby removing them as authority for further classification.

And the first Review also appears to have contributed to a historic reduction in reported original classification activity (i.e. the creation of new national security secrets), which reached a record low in 2014.

Now, five years after the first Review, the exercise will be repeated. “The scope of this Review needs to be systematic, comprehensive and conducted with thoughtful scrutiny involving detailed data analysis,” Mr. Cira wrote in his memo to executive branch agencies.

Even under the best of circumstances, agency classification guidance tends to become stale over time. The threat environment changes, policy deliberations or international relations demand fuller disclosure, information leaks or documents are declassified in response to FOIA requests, congressional direction, or historical declassification programs. Yet too often, the guidance itself remains static and unresponsive to changes in the external environment.

Faced with this growing disconnect between a realistic threat appraisal and the information security response, the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review represents the secrecy system’s own attempt at self-correction.

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The FCGR was inspired by the Department of Energy Fundamental Classification Policy Review that was initiated by then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary in the mid-1990s, and which had notable success in updating DoE’s classification system. Following a year of deliberations, the DoE reviewers concluded that hundreds of categories of classified information should be declassified, and most of them were. (Some declassification actions proposed by the DoE FCPR — such as those involving historical nuclear weapons locations — were blocked at the time by the Department of Defense.)

“Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this exercise was that it mobilized the DoE bureaucracy itself as an agent of secrecy reform,” I suggested in a 2009 paper on Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works that advocated broader application of this approach.

With the cooperation of William H. Leary at the National Security Council, a requirement to perform a Fundamental Classification Guidance Review throughout the executive branch every five years was incorporated in President Obama’s Executive Order 13526 (section 1.9) in December 2009. Over the coming year, its efficacy will be tested for a second time.

Mr. Cira’s memorandum directed agencies to “obtain the broadest possible range of perspectives” in their review of current classification guidance. He added significantly that “It is not sufficient to have a review conducted only by the pertinent original classification authority.”

But while the DoE Fundamental Review under Hazel O’Leary allowed for public input and feedback at the beginning and the end of the process, the FCGR does not explicitly provide for any public participation in the Review.