Overcoming Overclassification

09.16.08 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The next President could achieve a systematic reduction in government secrecy by directing each agency that classifies information to conduct a detailed public review of its classification policies with the objective of reducing secrecy to the essential minimum and declassifying everything that does not meet the standard for classification.

Modeled on the Fundamental Classification Policy Review that was performed by the Department of Energy in 1995, this approach may be the best way to eliminate obsolete secrecy policies and to galvanize disclosure of improperly classified material.

I discussed this proposal in a statement (pdf) submitted to a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing today on “Restoring the Rule of Law” chaired by Senator Russ Feingold.

Complaints about overclassification are about as old as the classification system itself. But policy responses that effectively mitigated the problem have been few and far between.

Numerous Commissions and advisory groups have urged various kinds of reforms over the years, but none of them has made a serious dent in classification policy. While President Clinton’s 1995 executive order 12958 triggered an avalanche of declassification of historical records, it left the scope of original classification activity unchanged. Statutory declassification programs like that established by the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Review Act relaxed controls on records concerning particular historical topics but did not translate into systematic classification reform.

By contrast, the DoE Fundamental Classification Policy Review permanently altered the Department of Energy’s classification policies in favor of greater openness.

The Review, undertaken as part of Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary’s Openness Initiative, was performed by 50 technical and subject matter experts with the benefit of significant public input. Thousands of classification guides were reviewed and modified. Hundreds of specific changes in classification policy were recommended and, with some exceptions, were adopted in practice.

The 1995 Review had several essential features that help to explain its comparative success.

First, it was focused at the agency level where most classification decisions are actually made. Although a presidential executive order defines the basic terms of the classification system for the executive branch as a whole, its practical implementation is decided at the agency level. It is the agencies that create the classification guides that specify exactly what information is to be classified at what level. It is therefore the agencies that must adopt and execute changes to those classification decisions.

Second, the 1995 Review enlisted the Department of Energy bureaucracy itself as an agent of classification reform, and not merely its object. Given a directive to modernize and curtail classification activity, this rule-based organization effectively revised its own classification policies beyond what any outside critic could have hoped to achieve or had been able to achieve in the past.

Third, the Review actively solicited public input on needed classification reforms, and invited public review of the resulting recommendations prior to completion. The process sought to incorporate public perspectives and to embody the transparency that it was intended to serve. In so doing, the Review successfully fostered public confidence and support for its work.

In the next Administration, the same principles could be brought to bear on each one of the major producers of classified information, including the defense agencies, the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department and the State Department.

Although there is widespread recognition within the government today that classification activity has exceeded all reasonable bounds, the leadership needed to correct the problem has been lacking. But the next Administration could supply it, with a directive to each classifying agency to perform a top to bottom review of every classification policy and guide.

A review of this sort would not solve all classification problems. It would not prevent deliberate abuse of classification authority. It would not even resolve all good faith classification disputes, many of which involve an irreducible subjective element. It would also not address the growing controls on unclassified information.

But in a policy arena prone to rhetorical thunderbolts that turn out to have no real world consequences, the fundamental classification policy review described in my statement is a proven method for reducing the enormous classification overgrowth that has built up over decades.