Secrecy News

The Presidential Transition and Secrecy

The possibilities for significant changes in government secrecy policy are starting to attract official attention as the presidential transition process begins.

“I know things are going to change,” one executive branch official with national security classification responsibility said this morning.  “The folks that are inbound have a keen appreciation for the kind of things that need to occur,” the official said.

He noted the role of John Podesta as leader of the transition team.  Mr. Podesta, now at the Center for American Progress (where he said he will return after the transition), is a former Clinton White House chief of staff.  He played an influential part in the development of the Clinton executive order on classification policy, which generally favored openness and dramatically increased declassification of historical records.

Mr. Podesta testified (pdf) on government secrecy policy before the Senate Judiciary Committee as recently as last September 16, where he presented his own agenda for secrecy reform.

His analysis was acute and his critique was eloquent.  But many of his recommendations pointed backwards, towards undoing what the Bush Administration has done, rather than to a qualitatively new information security policy.

So, for example, the very first “key recommendation” in Mr. Podesta’s testimony was that “The next president should rewrite [President Bush’s] Executive Order 13292 to reinstate the provisions of [President Clinton’s] Executive Order 12958 that establish a presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt.”

But restoring a “presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt” will not accomplish much since executive branch classification officers do not experience significant doubt.  There is no record of a single classification decision that was determined by the Clinton-era [and Carter-era] injunction not to classify in cases of doubt.  Therefore adding such language back to the executive order on classification is not imperative.

A better starting point would be a systematic review of all of the thousands of agency classification guides, geared towards eliminating obsolete or unnecessary classification instructions.  Classification guides are the secrecy system’s “software.”  Revising and updating them would be likely to pay immediate dividends in reduced classification.

Beyond that, there may be a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally rethink the structure of the national security classification system, and to conceive of something altogether new, different, and better.  What that might be remains to be discovered and articulated.

There is an old story of a Russian soldier who saved the life of the czar and was told that as a reward he could have anything he wanted.  “Please change my commanding officer!” he begged.

In the coming weeks and months, it should be possible to do a lot better than that.

0 thoughts on “The Presidential Transition and Secrecy

  1. Steven,

    Keep fighting your good fight! Now is the time to push this change and Secrecy News should lead the way. Your knowledge and passion on Openness is remarkable and I hope you find very willing ears to bend in the new Administration.

    Thanks for all you do!!!

  2. Those of us worker bees in the Executive Branch have been required to take training about “Sensitive But Unclassified” information, including rules about labeling such information and who is allowed to remove such a label. Swept up in this catch-all net were everything from vendor proprietary information and data protected by the Privacy Act, to technical data that’s export restricted. The result is an unworkable hodge-podge that has been impossible to implement well in non-defense agencies. (So how much of my hard drive do I have to encrypt? Do I edit my electronic copy of an informational vendor presentation to add ‘SBU’ on every page? Do I then have to notify my supervisor when I delete the file? What do I do now that implementing Microsoft’s Active Directory has broken the fingerprint reader on my laptop?)

    A silly example: It was recently decided that SSL and protections used by commercial web sites weren’t good enough for teleworkers filling out our time sheets. That’s because the employee time-keeping system has personally identifiable information in it. Duh. Now we have to apply for electronic VPN tokens to access an on-site machine to use a commercial web-based time-keeping application. Of course I’m in favor of securing personal data against identity thieves, but this policy change seems to have been implemented without much thought to the side-effects (e.g., more DC traffic and/or more tax money for hundreds of thousands of electronic gizzmo’s we have to carry on our persons).

    The new administration needs to get rid of this pseudo-category of restricted information ASAP and return to a presumption of openness–as well as ensure that the specific types of legally valid restrictions on information sharing are enforced. Privacy Act restrictions are not at all like export restrictions and neither is like embargoes on prepublication scientific data. Lumping them together just confuses things and reinforces a general presumption of government secrecy.

  3. Governmental organizational policies are almost always going to evolve into incomprehensible and illogical quagmires.

    Those struggling for solutions often find themselves victim to another human failing; fixating on foreground details, mistaking immediacy for importance. Inevitably this leads to bandaging the problem, and patting oneself on the back for creating such an effective “solution”, when in fact only the symptom has been addressed. The actual problem requires emotional divestment and enlarged perspective.

    In this particular case, the problem is not the byzantine system that has been implemented, but rather that the system is specified by personnel who have no business specifying these systems in the first place.

    Instead of microanalyses of individual procedures, a better approach would be a reworking of the expectations of and requirements for the policy making individual, with a heavy emphasis on real-world experience, with a track record of proven results, and not someone who has developed their philosophy from inside the governmental structure.

    This is the origin of the current system and it relies on political alliance and legal-writing skills, with a focus on self-advancement more than technical understanding and experience.

    Once again, the politically adept emerge victorious over the socially-impaired genius. Lets stop rewarding idiocy and emotionalism and start giving the public a more positive view of intellectualism. I will talk about that dynamic in a later blog post. For now, I suggest a reread of Dale Carnegie’s book, a lot of patience, and herbal tea.

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