Crisis of Credibility in Secrecy Policy

06.22.20 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Obsolete secrecy procedures and growing political abuse have left the national security classification system in a state of disarray and dysfunction.

Most government agencies “still rely on antiquated information security management practices,” according to a new annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). “These practices have not kept pace with the volume of digital data that agencies create.”

“Agencies are not applying or testing advanced technologies that would enable more precise classification and declassification, facilitate information sharing, and improve national security,” the ISOO report to the President said. “Classification and declassification actions are still performed manually, which is neither sustainable nor desirable in the digital age.”

“As the volume of records requiring [declassification] review increases, agencies are making more errors, putting Classified National Security Information at risk and eroding trust in the system,” ISOO said.

As damning as these and other ISOO findings may be, they hardly begin to capture the crisis of credibility that is facing the classification system today.

An effective classification system depends on a presumption of good faith on the part of classifiers, checked by independent oversight, and some consensual understanding of the meaning of national security. All of these factors are in doubt, absent, or undergoing swift transformation. Meanwhile, classification today is openly wielded as an instrument of political power.

“Conversations with me, they’re highly classified,” said President Trump last week. “I told that to the Attorney General before. I will consider every conversation with me, as President, highly classified.”

That remark is a wild departure from previous policy. However broadly it may have been construed in the past, classification was always supposed to apply to information that was plausibly related to national security (a necessary condition, though not a sufficient one). Even the most sensitive conversations with the President about tax policy or health care, for example, could not have been considered classified information.

In this case, President Trump was objecting to the publication of the new book by former national security adviser John Bolton, which he dismissed at the same time as a “compilation of lies and made-up stories.”

But Bolton’s lies, if that’s what they were, would not normally qualify as classified information either.

In principle, it’s possible that “lies and made-up stories” could be classified, though only to the extent that they were generated by the government itself (perhaps in the form of cover stories, or other official statements of misdirection). But any lies that Bolton might tell on his own are beyond the scope of classification, since they are not “owned by, produced by or for, or. . . under the control of” the US Government, as required by the executive order on classification.

President Trump may or may not understand such rudiments of national security classification. But by twisting classification policy into a weapon for political vendettas, the President is discrediting the classification system and accelerating its disintegration.

As for Bolton, the astonishing fact is that he is the second of Trump’s national security advisors (after Gen. Michael Flynn) to be accused of lying and criminal activity.

“If the [Bolton] book gets out, he’s broken the law,” the President said. “And I would think that he would have criminal problems.” Indeed, a court said on Saturday that Bolton might have “expose[d] himself to criminal liability.”

Second only to the President, the national security advisor is really the principal author and executor of classification policy. So when NSAs like Flynn and Bolton are disgraced (or worse), their disrepute reflects upon and attaches to the classification system to some degree.

Ironically, Mr. Bolton was more attentive to and more engaged in classification policy than many of his predecessors. He makes a tacit appearance (unnamed) in the new ISOO annual report, which notes: “In FY 2018, the ISCAP [Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel] received a request from the National Security Advisor to resolve a declassification dispute between the Departments of Defense and State.” That action, to Bolton’s credit, freed up all or parts of 60 documents for publication in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, over the objections of the Department of Defense.

The way to begin restoring credibility to classification policy is not hard to envision, though it may be difficult or impossible to implement under current circumstances. Like law enforcement, the classification system needs to be insulated from partisan political interference. Classification policy needs to adhere to well-defined national security principles (though the scope and application of these principles will be debatable). A properly functioning classification and declassification system will prove its integrity by sometimes producing outcomes that are politically unwelcome or inconvenient to the Administration. And since errors are inevitable, the classification system also requires a robust oversight and error-correction process.

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Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee blocked an effort by Senator Ron Wyden to restructure and strengthen the declassification system. A Wyden amendment to the FY 2021 intelligence authorization act would have designated the Director of National Intelligence as the Executive Agent for declassification, tasking him to establish and carry out government-wide declassification requirements. The Wyden amendment failed 7-8 with all Republican members opposed.

By rejecting his amendment (without offering any alternative), the Committee “failed to reform a broken, costly declassification system,” Sen. Wyden said in a dissenting statement appended to the June 17 report on the intelligence bill.

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While dismissing concerns about classification policy, the Senate Intelligence Committee roused itself to address the threat from unidentified flying objects, an issue that it said requires more focused government attention.

The Committee called on the Director of National Intelligence to provide detailed reporting on “unidentified aerial phenomena (also known as ‘anomalous aerial vehicles’), including observed airborne objects that have not been identified.”

“The Committee remains concerned that there is no unified, comprehensive process within the Federal Government for collecting and analyzing intelligence on unidentified aerial phenomena, despite the potential threat,” the new Committee report said.