CIA Reports No Progress in Classification Review

02.14.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Central Intelligence Agency has taken no action to carry out the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a mandatory effort to eliminate obsolete or unnecessary classification practices.

The Fundamental Review is a systematic attempt to combat overclassification by subjecting thousands of current classification instructions to critical scrutiny and revision.  It was required in President Obama’s December 2009 executive order 13526 (section 1.9), which came into effect in June 2010.  “These reviews can be extremely important in changing the habits and the practices of classifiers throughout government,” said William H. Leary of the National Security Staff last year.  But that will be true only if the required reviews are actually implemented.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request for CIA records on its implementation of the review process thus far, CIA reported last week (pdf) that “We did not locate any records responsive to your request.”

This does not necessarily imply that the CIA is being insubordinate or that the Fundamental Review will not eventually be performed there, an Administration official said, noting that agencies were given two years — until June 2012 — to complete the Review process.  The CIA’s latest statement “means only that they have not done anything to date,” the official said.  “There are  a ton of things that agencies have to do that did not come with a two-year implementation window.”

Nevertheless, it is not very encouraging to see that the CIA, which is one of the government’s most prolific classifiers, evidently does not consider the Fundamental Review to be a matter of urgency and a high priority.  Its lethargy is in contrast with the energetic response of the Department of Energy, which developed a detailed workplan last November to implement the Review.  (See “A Bumpy Start for Fundamental Classification Review,” Secrecy News, January 18, 2011.)  The Department of Homeland Security began its Fundamental Review even earlier, in July, according to internal DHS correspondence (pdf) also released under FOIA.

Reducing government reliance on secrecy is an appropriate response to current technological and political realities, according to a report released by the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Law and National Security (“No More Secrets: National Security Strategies for a Transparent World,” January 2011).  It would also reduce the nation’s growing susceptibility to unauthorized disclosures, and would therefore enhance national security.  “The report recommends that the government operate with fewer secrets to gain a significant advantage over those who ‘continue to cling to traditional notions of indefinite information monopoly’.”

The ABA report did not present an actionable plan that agencies could adopt to reduce the number of national security secrets they keep.  But that is what the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review was intended to provide.  The Review’s success — or its failure — will determine, for better or worse, the feasibility of reversing the growth of national security secrecy.

I made a pitch for rigorous implementation of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review in the current issue of Nature Medicine.  See “Review of classification rules represents an opportunity, even for medicine,” February 2011 (sub. req’d).  See also “ISOO Spurs Agencies to Perform Classification Review,” Secrecy News, February 2, 2011.

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