DoD Inspector General Report on Overclassification Misses the Mark

10.24.13 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Department of Defense Inspector General yesterday released its Evaluation of Over-Classification of National Security Information.  Unfortunately, the new report is superficial, incomplete and sheds little light on either the problem of overclassification or any potential solution.

Like other Inspectors General who have recently been evaluating classification policy under the Reducing Over-Classification Act, the DoD IG had to confront the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of overclassification. (See “What Is Overclassification?”, Secrecy News, October 21, 2013).

So the DoD IG review treats classification policy mainly as a procedural issue (how classification is performed) rather than a substantive one (what gets classified and why).

This is a limited though straightforward approach that lends itself to quantification. And there is no shortage of procedural faults in DoD classification activity. No less than 70% of all documents reviewed by the IG had “classification discrepancies,” such as faulty markings or citations to proper authority, the report said. Startlingly, “One-hundred percent of emails we reviewed contained errors in marking or classification.”

All of that is fine and interesting, but it is also beside the point.  The point is that the national security classification system has expanded beyond all consensus so that even the President of the United States has spoken of “the problem of over-classification.” The classification system is suffering a crisis of credibility, and it may be headed towards catastrophic failure.

According to a report last year from the congressionally-mandated Public Interest Declassification Board, “The classification system exists to protect national security, but its outdated design and implementation often hinders that mission. The system is compromised by over-classification….”

But if the classification system is “compromised by over-classification,” no one told the DoD Inspector General. Or maybe he neglected to ask. Although the Public Interest Declassification Board includes members with deep knowledge and experience of DoD classification policy (including former heads of the NRO and the NSA), the IG report does not acknowledge the Board’s work or contend with its findings.  Instead of advancing the debate, the IG report actually sets it back by ignoring established facts and prior analyses.

The IG report is also oblivious to current events. In recent years, including the period of the IG’s evaluation, the Department of Defense has suffered the most extensive and voluminous breaches of classification controls in its history. Remarkably, the perpetrators of those breaches (Manning and Snowden) expressed a perception that the information they released had been inappropriately classified and withheld from the public, and cited this as a motive for their actions. Strictly from a security policy point of view, it seems vital to evaluate such claims. Are similar perceptions widely held by others inside and outside the Department? And in retrospect, have such claims proved to be valid, even partially?  Unfortunately, the DoD Inspector General does not recognize any link between overclassification and unauthorized disclosures of classified information, and so such questions are neither asked nor answered in the report.

The DoD IG also has nothing to say about one of the most arresting failures of national security classification policy in recent memory, which is now transpiring: A December 2013 deadline set by President Obama himself (in 2009) for declassification and public release of the backlog of 25 year old historically valuable records will not be met.  This is a revelatory development. If the declassification process is not fully responsive even to direct presidential instruction, then it is truly broken and in need of repair. As the largest producer of classified records, the Department of Defense bears some responsibility for this problem, and also for its correction.  But lamentably, the DoD IG refused to engage, or even to acknowledge the problem. It is a missed opportunity.

In 1995 an earlier report from the DoD Inspector General was willing to admit that “The declassification process suffers from deficiencies that seriously impair its operation.”

But the latest DoD IG report does not even mention its own earlier finding, let alone any deficiencies or impairments in the operation of the declassification system, though these have arguably gotten worse as the volume of classified information has increased.

In fact, the new DoD IG report said it “did not evaluate declassification” at all. The entire topic was ignored. That is “because ISOO recently completed its five-year on-site assessment of agency declassification programs.” Readers of the IG report are referred to a scanty two-page summary in the latest annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office that did not even evaluate declassification productivity or efficiency.  Nor did the ISOO report address the imminent failure to complete the declassification and public release of the 25 year old backlog.

The DoD IG report also slights other important concerns, such as the disruptive effect of classification of nuclear weapons-related information under the Atomic Energy Act on the classification and declassification of other national security information. Instead of helping to chart a way forward towards simplification and reconciliation of the dual classification systems, the IG just says nothing on the subject.

In short, the new DoD Inspector General report on over-classification is a defective product. It should be rescinded and redone.

Withdrawal of a published IG report would be an extraordinary step, but it is warranted by the importance of the topic.

The DoD Inspector General could begin by consulting members of Congress and other inside and outside of government who have expressed dissatisfaction with DoD classification policy in order to understand their critique. The IG should review the existing literature on reform of classification and declassification practices (including its own prior work). The IG should assess the nature of the link between overclassification and unauthorized disclosures of classified information. It should diagnose the ongoing failure to timely declassify historically valuable records, and recommend appropriate changes. It should evaluate amendments to the Atomic Energy Act that may be needed to streamline and simplify the Department’s classification practices.

A more rigorous and probing Inspector General evaluation along those lines would be a service to the Department of Defense, to the government as a whole, and to the interested public.