Fundamental Review Leads to Some Reductions in Secrecy

08.30.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The classification guides that function as the framework for national security secrecy underwent a substantial overhaul during the past two years.  As a result of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a large fraction of existing classification guidance has been eliminated, and at least some existing categories of classified information have been declassified.

Out of 3,103 classification guides, or compilations of classification instructions, that were reviewed by national security agencies, 869 were either cancelled or consolidated, the National Archives announced in a news release today.

The purpose of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, mandated by President Obama’s executive order 13526 (section 1.9), was “to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.”

The newly revised guidance should provide increased clarity and specificity about what is to be classified, along with greater traceability in identifying the justification for classification.

But it is less clear that the Review will result in a diminished volume of classified information.

John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), had asked agencies to address “how much information that was classified is no longer classified as a result of the Review.”

Despite his instruction, most agencies did not discuss this central issue in their reports to ISOO.  But a few of them did.

The Department of Homeland Security indicated that 157 previously classified subtopics “were determined to no longer require classification.”

The Central Intelligence Agency reported that “some previously classified information [is] now listed as ‘unclassified'” following the Fundamental Review.

“Several categories of telecommunications information previously classified will no longer be classified,” the State Department said in its report.

Although the Fundamental Review was supposed to incorporate the “broadest possible range of perspectives” (according to the 2010 ISOO implementing directive), most agencies did not consult persons outside their agency, and none of them provided for public input, as far as is known.  (By contrast, the Department of Energy’s 1995 Fundamental Classification Policy Review, which served as a prototype for the present Review, invited public comment at the beginning and the end of the process.)

It is a demonstrable fact that agencies left to their own devices will overclassify information or classify it unnecessarily.  Whenever outside review is permitted, even if it is just within the executive branch, agency classification decisions are regularly overturned, as the record of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel consistently shows.

It follows that by limiting the scope of external review, and excluding public input altogether, the impact of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review on curbing overclassification was more muted than it could have been.