Inspectors General Assess Agency Classification Activity

06.03.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Inspector General at each government agency that classifies national security information is required by the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2010 to review the agency’s classification program as part of an effort to combat overclassification.  Those reviews are now underway.  But if properly performed, they could put the Inspectors General at odds with senior officials at their agency who habitually overclassify.

In its latest semi-annual report to Congress last week, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG) cited its ongoing work to evaluate Department classification activity.

“The OIG is reviewing the Department’s compliance with the Reducing Over-Classification Act to assess whether applicable classification policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have been adopted, followed, and effectively administered; and to identify policies, procedures, rules, or management practices that may result in misclassification of material,” the DoJ IG report said.

But at the Department of Justice, “misclassification of material” is arguably attributable to the senior leadership of the Department, if not the White House itself.

On May 22, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to Congress to formally acknowledge that four U.S. citizens had been killed in counterterrorism operations, including Anwar al-Aulaqi and three others.  The death of Al-Aulaqi (and all but one of the others) at the hands of U.S. forces had of course been previously reported and had long been implicitly or explicitly acknowledged by U.S. officials.

But remarkably, Attorney General Holder wrote that this information “until now has been properly classified.”

In other words, information that everyone around the world who cared to know had already known for years was, according to Attorney General Holder’s letter to Congress, “properly classified” until May 22, 2013.  The disconnect between objective reality and official classification policy could hardly be more apparent.

Whether the DoJ Inspector General is prepared to take the Attorney General to task for tolerating or promoting this type of misclassification of material remains to be seen.

From another point of view, it could be argued that the Attorney General’s classification judgments are beyond reproach, particularly since the President’s executive order on classification makes the Attorney General the final arbiter of the order’s requirements (EO 13526, section 6.2c). If the Attorney General says something is properly classified, then by the terms of the executive order it is properly classified– by definition.

From that perspective, what the President himself once referred to as “the problem of over-classification” simply vanishes. The DoJ Inspector General could then report that the classification system is functioning perfectly, and that it is performing as intended.

The first of two rounds of Inspector General evaluations of classification activity is due to be completed by September 30, 2013.