Classification Actions May Get “External” Review

06.25.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Obama Administration has instructed government agencies that classify national security information to review and update all of their classification guides — which specify what information is classified and at what level — and to gather input on classification policy from “the broadest possible range of perspectives,” according to a new official directive.

“To the extent practicable, input should also be obtained from external subject matter experts and external users of the reviewing agency’s classification guidance and decisions,” wrote Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) director William J. Bosanko in the new directive (pdf).

The ISOO directive, to be published in the Federal Register on Monday June 28, informs government agencies how they are supposed to implement President Obama’s December 2009 Executive Order 13526 on classification and declassification policy, which formally takes effect on June 27.

Among that executive order’s several interesting features is what is called the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which requires a complete reexamination of all agency classification practices to validate their contents and to cancel obsolete secrecy requirements.  This Review is the Obama Administration’s primary response to the pervasive problem of overclassification.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review is “the most important effort to address this problem [of overclassification],” said William H. Leary of the National Security Council last January.

“[It] is a totally new requirement that agencies conduct fundamental reviews of their classification guides and other guidance to ensure that they eliminate outdated and unnecessary classification requirements.  The first of these fundamental reviews has to be completed within two years, and agencies are required to make public the results so that people… can hold us responsible for the results,” said Mr. Leary, who spoke at a January 20 program at American University’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy. “These reviews can be extremely important in changing the habits and the practices of classifiers throughout government,” he said.

Opening the classification reviews to “the broadest possible range of perspectives,” as required by the new ISOO directive, has the potential to minimize the frivolous, self-serving or unnecessary use of classification authority.  At least, that’s the theory.

“We cannot simply throw open the doors today and make all information public, but we should rigorously push-back on current notions of what needs to be secret,” wrote Suzanne E. Spaulding in the Huffington Post yesterday.  See “No More Secrets: Then What?”