Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works

06.29.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Although people have been complaining about abuse of the national security classification system for decades, such complaints have rarely been translated into real policy changes.

More than half a century ago, a Defense Department advisory committee warned that “Overclassification has reached serious proportions.”  But despite innumerable attempts at corrective action over the years by official commissions, legislators, public interest groups and others, similar or identical complaints echo today.  What is even more interesting and instructive, however, is that a few of those attempts did not fail.  Instead, they led to specific, identifiable reductions in official secrecy, at least on a limited scale.

For example, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) that was created in 1995 has consistently overturned the classification of information in the majority of documents presented for its review.  And the Fundamental Classification Policy Review that was performed by the Department of Energy in 1995 eliminated dozens of obsolete classification categories following a detailed review of agency classification guides.  These and just a few other exceptional efforts demonstrate that even deeply entrenched secrecy practices can be overcome under certain conditions.

In an effort to identify some of those conditions, I wrote a paper entitled “Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works” (pdf). It has just been published in the Yale Law and Policy Review, volume 27, no. 2, Spring 2009.

Among other things, the experience of the ISCAP underscores the importance of extending declassification authority beyond the agency that imposed the classification in the first place.  It would be useless to restore “the presumption against classification” in cases of “significant doubt,” as President Obama suggested on May 29, if that presumption applied only when such doubt arose in the mind of the classifier.  But if classification were to be overruled by doubt in the minds of other persons — ISOO overseers, Inspector General auditors, judges in FOIA proceedings, and others — significant changes would be enabled.

However, systemic classification reform simply will not happen without careful independent review of agency classification guides, which specify exactly what information is to be classified.  The DoE Fundamental Classification Policy Review proves that such a review, including public participation and input, is both possible and highly effective. It needs to be replicated at other classifying agencies.

The White House has announced an online process for receiving public comments and recommendations for changes to classification and declassification policies.  Discussion of declassification policy begins today here.