Towards a Fresh Start in Classification Policy

08.06.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The current Obama Administration review of classification policy will almost certainly produce an incremental adjustment to existing practices– though hopefully with provisions for independent validation (or rejection) of agency classification decisions, strengthened oversight, expedited declassification, and so forth.  But it is unlikely to lead to a wholesale replacement of the basic framework of the Cold War classification system that has lingered now for more than half a century.  The “next generation” of national security information policy is still out of reach.

To hasten the development of more efficient and transparent information security policies, the forthcoming Obama executive order on classification could encourage experimental pilot projects in classification and declassification and related activities.

An agency head could be authorized to establish, with the approval of the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, a limited-scale initiative that departs from the otherwise binding requirements of the executive order in the interests of fostering innovation in classification policy.  (ISOO concurrence would be needed to ensure that the pilot projects were designed to promote appropriate efficiency and transparency, not to provide a new pretext for intensified secrecy.)

What kind of initiatives might these be?  One possibility would be to collapse the multi-tiered classification system into a single level, so that information within the domain of the pilot project would either be “classified” or “unclassified” — other classification levels and compartments would not be permitted. Another possibility would be to undertake ambitious bulk declassification projects that have an elevated risk of disclosure of classified information beyond what is normally tolerated.  This would provide a realistic but small-scale indication of the “damage” that could ensue from forgoing expensive, time-consuming declassification review.  Other initiatives could experiment with discretionary releases of classified information, prohibitions against use of the “need to know” principle, and similar deviations from the norm.

One precedent or model for this kind of approach is the congressionally-mandated program for Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory (STRL) demonstration projects, which are used to promote innovation in Defense Department personnel management policies.  Those projects have been authorized to waive existing laws and regulations on human resources management.

“The STRL demonstration projects are the vehicles through which the… Department of Defense will determine whether changes in personnel management concepts, policies, or procedures would result in improved laboratory performance and contribute to improved DoD or Federal personnel management,” according to a DoD directive (pdf) issued just last week.

“In the most general terms, a demonstration project provides a means for testing and introducing beneficial change in Government-wide human resources management systems,” according to an earlier Air Force Fact Sheet.  The Air Force identified several successful policy innovations that have been developed in this way, such as the Voluntary Emeritus Corps that permits senior scientists to continue their research into retirement while mentoring younger scientists in Air Force laboratories.  Similar creativity is desperately needed in the stagnant realm of government secrecy policy.

The point is to promote unorthodox approaches to security policy that may involve heightened risk, but that also offer significant potential improvements in operational performance, cost reduction and/or transparency.  Most of these efforts could well fail.  But some might prove fruitful, and worth replicating on a larger scale.  In this way, the Obama executive order could help pave the way for the executive order after next, and for a new, more nimble 21st century information policy.