Fundamental Review Yields Reduction in Scope of Secrecy

10.03.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Department of Defense this year cancelled 82 security classification guides as a result of the ongoing Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a focused effort to combat overclassification of national security information.  The cancelled guides can no longer be used to authorize classification of DoD information.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which must be performed by all classifying agencies under President Obama’s executive order 13526 (sect. 1.9), is intended to ensure that classification guidance reflects current circumstances, and is supposed to eliminate obsolete or unnecessary classification requirements.  Remarkably, it seems to be having a measurable effect.

The cancellation of the 82 DoD classification guides, which are compilations of detailed instructions used for classifying information on various topics, will not make a huge dent in Pentagon secrecy.  The defunct guides amount to only a little more than 4% of the total number of DoD classification guides (of which there are 1,878 extant).  But their withdrawal appears to represent a real, non-rhetorical reduction in the permissible scope of national security secrecy.

In fact, the 82 cancelled guides (which are mostly from the Navy) constitute more than 10% of the 648 DoD classification guides that had been reviewed as of last July.  So by the time that a review of all of the guides is completed, which must be done by June 2012, there is reason to expect the elimination of dozens of additional DoD classification guides.

These data were reported by the Department of Defense in a July 29, 2011 Interim Status Report on the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review (FCGR) that was obtained by Secrecy News under the Freedom of Information Act.

The DoD Interim Report sought to downplay expectations about the final outcome of the Review.  DoD said that most of its classification guides had already been reviewed during the past three years “and declared accurate… by the responsible Original Classification Authority.”  Consequently, the Report said, “within the ongoing FCGR, we have seen few changes or developments impacting actual topics meriting classification.”

But this worrisome remark suggests that there has been a misunderstanding of the Review process by some Pentagon officials.  The question posed by the Fundamental Review is not whether the original classifier believes that a prior classification decision is still valid;  if he or she does not, the information should no longer be classified by any account.

Rather, the Review is supposed to reflect a judgment by subject matter experts other than the original classifier (involving “the broadest possible range of perspectives,” as the ISOO implementing directive says) that the classification action makes continued sense — which is a higher, more demanding standard to meet.  It is not clear from the Interim Report whether DoD is incorporating the views of internal or external subject matter experts in its Review.

“It is essential that we fulfill this [Fundamental Review] requirement in a way that shows responsible stewardship of our resources,” wrote Under Secretary of Defense Michael G. Vickers in a May 19 tasking memo.  “We cannot afford to expend resources on protecting information that no longer meets the criteria for classification.”

In a related development of potentially great significance, the DoD Interim Report mentions in passing that “The DoD Inspector General is evaluating the nomination of the [Fundamental Review] to be identified as an IG Special Interest Item (SII).”  Any such involvement by the Inspector General could bring valuable depth and perspective to the Fundamental Review, and add to its effectiveness in stripping away unwarranted secrecy.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that it had initiated a Fundamental Review of 8 of its 22 security classification guides so far, and that 1 of them had been eliminated “because the program it supported was terminated.”  The ODNI Interim Report, by Information Management Director John F. Hackett, also described various ODNI classification management initiatives to ensure compliance with the executive order.

The FCGR “is not intended to be a superficial review but a thoughtful, methodical process using the experience and knowledge of a variety of subject matter experts,” wrote Stephanie L. O’Sullivan, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, in a May 26 memo to intelligence agencies.