Secrecy Review Cancels Some Obsolete Secrets

08.24.17 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

One of the innovations in the current executive order on national security classification, issued by President Obama in 2009, was to require agencies to perform a periodic review of all classification guidance to ensure that it is current, threat-based, and otherwise appropriate.

The second such Fundamental Classification Guidance Review (FCGR) has recently been completed with modest but positive results, as reported to the Information Security Oversight Office.

The Department of the Navy, for example, said that it had “achieved a reduction in the number of SCGs [security classification guides] from 936 to 421 or 55%, as a result of the FCGR.”

DARPA cancelled 29 of the 189 classification guides it reviewed. The Army eliminated 77 out of 486 guides.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “[reduced] the number of restrictive NOFORN decisions from 95 to 15″ and declassified the “fact of” a specific counterterrorism network platform.

The Central Intelligence Agency “determined that the existing CIA National Security Classification Guide (NSCG) required greater detail to assist derivative classifiers in identifying and protecting information appropriately.” (More detail should lead to narrower, more precise classification judgments.)

The Defense Intelligence Agency said it will reduce the number of “original classification authorities” in the Agency who are empowered to create new secrets from 147 down to 21.

By themselves, the reported revisions to classification guidance are not likely to yield new public disclosures. In most cases, the cancelled classification guides were eliminated not because their subject matter was declassified but because they pertained to programs that were terminated or to technologies that were no longer in use.

In other words, the secrecy review was essentially performed as a housekeeping measure, to eliminate obsolete guidance and to streamline operations. It does not imply a broader transformation of classification policy.

Yet the fact remains that the cancelled guides can no longer be used to justify classification. Moreover, the review process entailed a wholesome reconsideration of the basis for current classification instructions that may have broader repercussions.

Following the first Fundamental Review in 2012, the total numbers of new secrets (“original classification decisions”) created by agencies in the last three years (2014-2016) have been the lowest ever reported by the Information Security Oversight Office.

This apparent reduction in the scale of national security secrecy is at odds with the view that government secrecy inexorably expands, that Obama-era secrecy was as extensive or even broader than that of the Bush Administration, and that agencies have no real incentives to reduce secrecy. Evidently, they do have such incentives, including the avoidance of financial and operational costs, the need to facilitate information sharing, and the obligation to comply with bureaucratic requirements (such as the FCGR) that may be imposed by senior leadership.

(It is possible that the reduction is merely apparent and not real. A retired intelligence community classification official said that the data on annual classification activity reported by agencies and compiled by ISOO is hopelessly inaccurate and does not correspond to actual classification practice at all. Consequently, he said, it cannot serve as the basis for any analytic conclusion or policy response. Maybe so. But assuming that the flimsiness of the data is roughly constant from year to year, the fact that the reported totals have declined sharply may still be meaningful.)

A detailed analysis of the 2017 Fundamental Classification Guidance Review will be provided by ISOO director Mark Bradley in the forthcoming FY 2018 Annual Report to the President.

Decreasing IC Classification Activities

Last year, then-DNI James Clapper asked Intelligence Community agency heads to use the occasion of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review “to take a leading role in reducing targeted classification activities” and to answer several specific questions that he posed in a March 23, 2016 memo.

Last month, DNI Dan Coats provided the IC agency answers to Clapper’s questions. He reported:

*    Most IC agencies believe they can reduce the number of IC officials who have original classification authority, thereby helping to constrain future classification activity.

*    Agencies are split on the feasibility of undertaking new discretionary declassification activities. Some said they were already doing what they can, and others said current resources would not support new declassification initiatives.

*    The Confidential classification level can and probably will be eliminated from IC classification guidance, simplifying and streamlining the system. However, while some currently Confidential material would be downgraded to Unclassified, other such information will be upgraded to Secret.

*    An IC-wide classification guide may be achievable but only for certain common functions including intelligence budgeting and counterintelligence.

IG Studies on Classification Policy

The FY 2018 Intelligence Authorization Act that is pending in the Senate would require intelligence agency inspectors general to perform three studies on classification policy (section 308) including:

*    a review of classification marking practices

*    a study analyzing intelligence agency compliance with declassification procedures

*    a study on processes for identifying intelligence topics of public or historical importance that should be prioritized for declassification review.