Secrecy System Churned Along in 2009

04.15.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The national security classification system hit some new highs as well as some new lows over the last year, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) disclosed in its latest annual report to the President (pdf).

The total number of reported national security classification actions skyrocketed to a record 54.8 million classifications last year, a startling 135 percent increase over the year before, the ISOO report said.  But this rise was largely due to a change in reporting practices to include email and other electronic products that were excluded from previous reports, ISOO said, and so it “does not reflect an increase in classification activity.”

In fact, wrote ISOO Director William J. Bosanko in his transmittal letter to the President, “There were several positive developments this year” in terms of limiting classification activity.

The actual number of wholly new secrets, or “original classification actions,” decreased by 10 percent to 183,224 classification decisions.  (The large majority of classification actions are known as “derivative classifications,” which means that they incorporate or reproduce in a new document information that has previously been classified.)

The number of “original classification authorities” — the individuals who are authorized to designate information as classified in the first place — also decreased by 37% to 2,557, which is the lowest number of authorized classifiers ever reported, since ISOO began keeping statistics 30 years ago.

And agencies assigned a maximum duration for classification of ten years or less to 67 percent of newly classified records, the highest fraction ever.

Disappointingly from a public access point of view, however, the number of pages that were declassified declined by 8 percent in 2009, to 28.8 million pages, although the number of pages that were reviewed (52 million pages) actually increased slightly.

See the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) Report to the President for Fiscal Year 2009, transmitted March 31, 2010 and made public today.

The ISOO annual report is a touchstone for assessing the state of national security secrecy each year since it provides a unique public compilation of agency data on classification activity. Unfortunately, the underlying data are of questionable validity, and they may be completely unreliable.

So, for example, the latest report states that the CIA was responsible for no more than four original classification actions last year, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence generated only two.  That seems doubtful, to say the least.  At the other extreme, the Army reported over 75,000 original classifications in 2009.  Based on this disparity in the numbers, it seems unlikely that agencies are using the standard terminology in the same way.  Or as the ISOO report put it, “We question whether many of these are truly original decisions.”

In short, there is still plenty of room for improvement in collection methodology and quality control in assessing classification activity.

Also, there are at least two categories of data that are not currently available which could be usefully reported in the future.

ISOO reports the number of classification challenges that are filed by authorized persons who dispute the classification of particular items of information (of which there were 365 in FY2009).  But it does not indicate the outcome of those challenges, i.e. whether they led to a change in classification status or not.  This information would be helpful in determining whether the official classification challenge procedure is a meaningful one, or a pointless exercise.

Another significant category of information that could be reported by ISOO in the future is the number of categories of classified information that are removed from existing classification guides and declassified as a consequence of the upcoming Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.  This Review, which is supposed to take place over the next two years, is the Obama Administration’s most important and most systematic effort to combat the problem of overclassification.  Although agencies are supposed to generate their own public reports of the Review results, a consolidated account and evaluation by ISOO would provide an early indication of whether the President’s plan to fight overclassification is working or not.