Secrecy News

Number of New Secrets in 2015 Near Historic Low

The production of new national security secrets dropped precipitously in the last five years and remained at historically low levels last year, according to a new annual report released today by the Information Security Oversight Office.

There were 53,425 new secrets (“original classification decisions”) created by executive branch agencies in FY 2015. Though this represents a 14% increase from the all-time low achieved in FY 2014, it is still the second lowest number of original classification actions ever reported. Ten years earlier (2005), by contrast, there were more than 258,000 new secrets.

The new data appear to confirm that the national security classification system is undergoing a slow-motion process of transformation, involving continuing incremental reductions in classification activity and gradually increased disclosure.

Thus, the number of officials who are authorized to generate new national security secrets (“original classification authorities”) dropped to an all-time reported low of 2,199, the new ISOO report said.

Meanwhile, “derivative classification activity,” or the incorporation of existing secrets into new forms or products, dropped by 32%.

The number of pages declassified increased by 30% over the year before.

Of particular interest, the number of internal ”classification challenges” — in which government employees who are authorized holders of classified information themselves challenged the classification status or level of the information — reached an all-time high of 952 formal challenges in FY 2015. Of those, 411 (or 43%) were granted in whole or in part, ISOO reported. This internal challenge procedure has the potential to create an entire new dynamic of self-correction within the classification system.

See 2015 Report to the President, Information Security Oversight Office, transmitted by ISOO Acting Director William A. Cira, July 15, 2016.

Not all is well, however.

The cost of the national security secrecy system reached an all-time high of $17.44 billion in FY 2015, up 8% from the year before — a rate of growth that seems hard to sustain.

The average number of days to respond to a mandatory declassification request increased to 270 days, and the number of MDR requests that have gone unresolved for more than a year increased significantly to more than 14,000.

The use of the “declassify in ten years or less” instruction on newly classified documents dropped sharply down to 15%, making it harder to implement automatic declassification procedures in the future.

Overall, however, the good news — a reduced scope for secrecy and increased disclosure activity — seems to dominate. The sustained reductions in new classification activity are likely to be extended further with the implementation of the second Fundamental Classification Guidance Review that is now underway.

Interestingly, the impressive changes in national security classification policy over the past several years have occurred primarily at the agency level. The White House seems barely cognizant of those changes, and did not mention them at all in a recent description of the Obama Administration’s efforts “to drive openness and transparency in government.”