House Approves Two Secrecy Policy Measures

03.01.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The House of Representatives last week approved two secrecy-related amendments to the pending FY 2010 intelligence authorization act (HR 2701).  The amendments and the bill itself await further action in a House-Senate conference.

An amendment by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) would require the Director of National Intelligence to identify records held by U.S. intelligence agencies that deal with human rights violations in Argentina committed by that country’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1985, and to review such records for declassification (sec. 360).  An amendment by Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) would require the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community to prepare a report “containing an analysis of the problem of over-classification and ways to address such over-classification” (sec. 358).

Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” in the 1970s was a national trauma that persists in living memory, involving the death and disappearance of tens of thousands of victims.  “By passing this measure today,” said Rep. Hinchey, “Congress is helping to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the terrible human rights abuses committed by the despotic Argentinian regime of the 1970’s and 1980’s and helping to bring truth and justice to what was a horrific period in South America.”

Rep. Harman’s amendment would help to enlist the new Inspector General of the Intelligence Community in the process of intelligence classification reform.  Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, only Congress can require the Inspector General to undertake this task.  And the IG should be well-positioned to do so, with all of the necessary clearances and depth of access.

In truth, however, it is a little late in the day for a “report” on overclassification.  It is more than a half century since the Coolidge Committee (pdf) informed the Secretary of Defense that “overclassification has reached serious proportions,” and dozens of other official and unofficial commissions and reviews have generated similar findings (pdf) since that time.

Fortunately, secrecy policy today seems to have moved beyond the “analysis” phase. A focused effort to combat overclassification in practice was approved in President Obama’s executive order 13526 (sec. 1.9).  Specifically, all classifying agencies have been ordered to perform a “fundamental review” of their classification guidance “to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.”

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.

“[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.