Classification System is “Broken,” Advisers Tell DHS

11.03.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The national security classification system at the Department of Homeland Security is “broken,” and one of the top ten challenges facing the next Secretary of Homeland Security is to fix it, according to a recent report (pdf) from the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

“The federal security clearance process and classification system is broken and is a barrier (and often an excuse) for not sharing pertinent information with homeland security partners,” the report stated.  “The next Secretary should direct a concerted effort to resolve these clearance and classification issues.”

See “Top Ten Challenges Facing the Next Secretary of Homeland Security,” Homeland Security Advisory Council, September 11, 2008 (Key Challenge 3, at page 8).

The Homeland Security Advisory Council is chaired by William H. Webster, the former Director of Central Intelligence and FBI Director.  The Vice Chair is James R. Schlesinger, the former Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Defense.

Not everyone shares the Council’s dismal view of DHS classification and clearance policy.

“We try to write at the lowest classification level possible,” said Charles E. Allen, the DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence Analysis at a February 26, 2008 hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee.  “It is amazing what we can get down to ‘official use’,” he said. “I am rather amazed at what we have out there on a day-to-day basis.”

As for security clearances, Mr. Allen said, “I am quite a tiger at pushing clearances and getting people cleared.”

But others concur with the Council assessment.

“On the classification issue, there is just no question that the system is broken, fundamentally broken,” said Stephen E. Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations at a May 15, 2008 hearing.  “The clearance process is completely overwhelmed. Because things get routinely overclassified, they can’t get to the people who need it.”

Unfortunately, the new Homeland Security Advisory Council report is not a significant addition to the literature on classification reform because it does not clearly articulate the problem, nor does it offer a specific solution.  “Fix the security clearance and classification process” is not in itself actionable advice.

One practical proposal for advancing classification reform in the next Administration was discussed in “Overcoming Overclassification,” Secrecy News, September 16, 2008.