National Security Reform and Classification Policy

12.08.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“The security classification process … remains a major impediment to interagency information sharing,” a new report from the congressionally mandated supported Project on National Security Reform reaffirmed last week.

The 830-page report (pdf) proposes a significant restructuring of the U.S. government national security decision-making apparatus in order to increase integration and operational agility.  The report addresses a range of organizational pathologies that afflict the national security system, and mines the literature on organizational behavior for new approaches to national security policy development and implementation.  It grapples with serious issues, and flickers intermittently with insight and fresh thinking.

Unfortunately, although the report devotes sustained attention to classification policy, its analysis of that subject and its resulting recommendations are rather shallow.

“Sharing information across organizational boundaries is difficult… [because] agency cultures discourage information sharing,” the report states.  But this is a restatement of the problem, not an explanation of it.

“Compartmentalized and obfuscatory classification procedures must be revised,” the authors recommend.  They vaguely advocate a “common [government-wide] approach for information classification [that] will increase transparency, improve accessibility, and reinforce the overall notion that personnel in the national security system are stewards of the nation’s information, not owners thereof.”

At the same time, they acknowledge that the much “simpler” problem of establishing a government-wide approach to handling sensitive unclassified information required extensive coordination over a period of years “and its ultimate success is not yet evident.”

And so the real upshot of the report’s argument is that the classification system cannot be fixed at all, at least not in isolation or on its own existing terms.  Rather, the authors argue, the entire national security apparatus must be reconceived and reconstructed to permit extremely agile, ad hoc teams of expert problem solvers drawn from all relevant agencies to temporarily collaborate on a particular issue and then to dissolve.

“Below the president, the national security system must be broken down into structures that easily attach, detach, and reattach with others to solve problems efficiently while remaining accountable to higher authorities who have the responsibility to monitor their performance.”

When that idyllic state has been achieved, then classification barriers will also have ceased to be a problem.

See “Forging a New Shield,” Project on National Security Reform, November 2008.