Overclassification: Is There a Limit?

By June 10, 2014

Is there any act of overclassification that is so egregious that the classifier would be held accountable for abusing his classification authority?

The answer is unknown, since no one has ever been held accountable in such a case.

As far as can be determined, no classifier has ever been found to have willfully or culpably defied the rules set forth in the President’s executive order on national security classification.

In a complaint filed last year with the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), a Marine Corps officer argued that private video recordings and related “trophy images” including one depicting Marines urinating on human remains in Afghanistan had been classified in violation of the executive order.

Major James W. Weirick asked ISOO Director John F. Fitzpatrick to render a judgment that the urination video and related images had been improperly classified. Among other reasons, Major Weirick wrote that they originated as private documents, that one video had been posted online and that all were outside of the control of the U.S. Government, a prerequisite for classification.

“This video was captured on a personal video recorder and only became known to the U.S. Government after it surfaced on YouTube, and other media outlets, in January 2012. The Government could never account for all the copies of this information and made no attempt to account for this information,” Major Weirick wrote in his November 14, 2013 complaint.

In a May 30 response, ISOO Director John P. Fitzpatrick said he took the complaint seriously and that he had undertaken a review of the matter, but that he ultimately decided that it did not require corrective action.

Mr. Fitzpatrick “met with all USMC officials directly involved in the decision to classify” as well as with Major Weirick. He determined that the video that had been uploaded to YouTube had in fact been specifically excluded from the original classification decision (although dozens of other, similar videos and photographs were classified).

“I spoke at length with the original classification authority (OCA) who made the classification decision. I am convinced that the primary motivation for the classification decision was the safety of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and the protection of specific tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment,” Mr. Fitzpatrick wrote in his May 30, 2014 response to Major Weirick.

J. William Leonard, who was Mr. Fitzpatrick’s predecessor as ISOO Director, expressed dismay at the ISOO decision not to pursue the matter further.

He said that the classified images could not be properly classified because they were not under effective or exclusive U.S. government control. “The USG had control of copies of the images, but not the images themselves,” which had been freely and informally exchanged for months. “The same rationale that applied to not classifying the YouTube video also applied to the other images as well since there were undoubtedly other copies beyond the government’s control.”

“Even if you accepted the claim regarding the need to protect sensitive TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures], the troubling claim of both USMC and ISOO is that it was entirely appropriate to classify images and video that depicted nothing more than Marines posing with corpses, i.e. the ‘trophy’ photos.  Such photos depicted nothing more than unlawful conduct in a war zone,” Mr. Leonard said.

“I am extremely concerned that the integrity of the classification system continues to be severely undermined by the complete absence of accountability in instances such as this clear abuse of classification authority,” Mr. Leonard wrote in an endorsement of Major Weirick’s complaint.

“The provisions of the [executive] order establishing accountability are more feckless than the 55 mph speed limit on the Capital Beltway,” Mr. Leonard said. “At least on the Beltway, if you go fast enough you’ll eventually get a ticket. In the classification system, by virtue of never holding anyone or any agency accountable for abusing the system, we really don’t know how far you can go.”

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A 2012 classification guide issued by U.S. Central Command authorizes classification of information if its disclosure would “embarrass any Coalition members” (at pp. I-4 to I-5).

This provision appears to be inconsistent with Executive Order 12356, Section 1.7, which states: “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to: […] prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”

Categories: Oversight, Secrecy