Secrecy News

NGA Charts New Path in Classification Policy

Changes in classification practices at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) are expected to yield improvements in the quality of national security classification decisions and to lead to reductions in classification at NGA as well as other defense and intelligence agencies.

The most important innovation adopted by NGA is a requirement for a written justification for why each item of classified information needs to be protected, as well as how the information could be paraphrased or discussed in an unclassified manner.

NGA said it has prepared a new classification guide that includes three types of “enhancement statements” for each classification decision:

*    The “Value” statement explains why the information is being protected.

*    The “Damage” statement describes the potential impact to national security should an unauthorized disclosure occur.

*    The “Unclassified” statement outlines how a user can address the classified line item in an unclassified manner.

Notably, none of this explanatory information is required by the current executive order on classification. The order requires classifiers to be “able to” explain their classification decisions, but not to actually do so.

By contrast, the NGA formula is likely to promote a more thoughtful and limited approach to classifying national security information, said Mark Bradley, director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).

“Including an unclassified paraphrase is especially useful for helping derivative classifiers understand how it may be possible to use the information in an unclassified context,” said Mr. Bradley. “That alone can certainly move the needle towards reducing overclassification.”

NGA said that as of June 2017 it had produced enhancement statements for 292 classified line items in its new consolidated security classification guide.

The new NGA policy was described in the Agency’s report to ISOO on the recently-completed Fundamental Classification Guidance Review. A copy of the report was obtained from NGA under the Freedom of Information Act.

*    *    *

Why would NGA voluntarily impose new requirements on its own classifiers beyond what the executive order mandates?

There are several factors at work. Of all U.S. intelligence agencies, “NGA has  a greater mission need to work more and more in an unclassified environment,” said Mr. Bradley. “This need is playing a central role in driving their new approach.”

Furthermore, under NGA director Robert Cardillo, “NGA’s leadership supports innovation. They realized that their classification guide process was too ‘old school’,” he said.

More specifically, “NGA took DNI Clapper’s [March 2016] memo on the FCGR process to heart.” (See “DNI Clapper Embraces Review of Secrecy System,” Secrecy News, April 6, 2016). And Mr. Bradley cited a visit to the NGA Director by the Public Interest Declassification Board, which he said also provided a useful impetus.

Overall, “the changes we are seeing at NGA are arcing more towards sharing than protecting. That could help shift the paradigm away from excessive secrecy and over-classification,” Mr. Bradley said.

The Agency itself declared that “NGA is leading the DoD and IC [Intelligence Community] in classification management transformation.”

NGA said that its use of enhancement statements to improve classification guides will soon be adopted throughout the Department of Defense, including all DoD intelligence agencies and military services, in a forthcoming revision of DoD manual 5200.45 on classification guidance.

But Mr. Bradley cautioned that “NGA’s model may not be all that easy to adapt to the rest of the IC.”

“NGA has a comparatively limited and well-defined mission with a significant need to share its information. Agencies most likely to benefit from NGA’s model probably include NRO and maybe NSA, [which are] IC agencies with similarly clearly-defined responsibilities and advanced existing classification management infrastructures already in place.”

On the other hand, “I suspect that applying NGA’s model to CIA, DIA, and the military intelligence services would be more challenging because of their decentralized management structures and technical limitations. And, of course, one would be silly to ignore the always-present institutional resistance to wholesale change,” Mr. Bradley said.

Although NGA’s new approach is mission-driven, it should have positive repercussions for public access to agency information by “enabling greater transparency and information sharing.” The new NGA classification guidance provides “better identification and protection of the truly important information — higher walls around fewer secrets,” NGA said.

NGA’s activity in this area is “extremely impressive, groundbreaking work,” said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in feedback quoted by NGA. “Clearly, [it is] a possible example or model for how to achieve transformation, for the IC and nationally.”

The new NGA approach evolved from the second Fundamental Classification Guidance Review in 2016-2017 that was required by the 2009 executive order 13526. That Review process has served to streamline and update classification requirements government-wide.

In recent years there have been signs of a more focused and disciplined approach to classification in several corners of the national security bureaucracy. The volume of new national security secrets tabulated by agencies in each of the past three years is lower than ever previously reported by the Information Security Oversight Office.