Shrink the Classification System

12.16.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Faced with release of hundreds of thousands of classified records by Wikileaks in recent months, what should the government do?  The best answer might be to release hundreds of millions of such records!  By stripping away the accretions of decades of overclassification, a wholesale reduction in classified records would restore some integrity to the classification system, bolster public confidence in its legitimacy, and strengthen the security of residual classified secrets.

In a recent exchange with a National Security Council official who deals with information policy, we suggested that the optimal response to unauthorized disclosures would be an accelerated program of authorized disclosures, leading to a sharp reduction in the size and scope of the classification system.  He wasn’t buying it.

“Unfortunately, for reasons you can imagine, this is not a good time to promote that bit of common sense,” he replied.  To the contrary, however, we think this is the best time to shrink the classification system, before it sputters into incoherence and ultimate irrelevance.

It is true that the past year has seen significant breakthroughs in reducing nuclear stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy, among other notable achievements.  But it is also true that systemic secrecy reform is lagging.  There are many illustrative problems that tell the tale:

**  Last December President Obama called for recommendations on ways to achieve a “fundamental transformation” of the security classification system.  A year later, no such recommendations have been formulated or submitted to the President for action.  (The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a public meeting on the subject on January 20, 2011.)  The process of transformation appears to be stillborn.

**  It so happens that President Obama has already ordered the declassification of hundreds of millions of records.  These are not contemporary records, but a backlog of historical records more than 25 years old.  Some 400 million pages of them are  supposed to be declassified and made public by the end of 2013, the President said in December 2009.  But to meet that goal, it will be necessary to declassify an average of 100 million pages per year.  In the first six months of this year, less than 8 million were declassified, according to a report (pdf) from the National Declassification Center.  This modest beginning will make it difficult if not impossible to fulfill the task assigned by the President.

**  In the Administration’s most direct response to the problem of overclassification, President Obama directed each classifying agency to perform a Fundamental Classification Guidance Review “to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.”  Agencies were given two years to complete the Review, from July 2010 to June 2012. Six months of that period have already elapsed.  But this week the Defense Department, the largest classifying agency, told Secrecy News that thus far it had no records concerning implementation of the Review.  In other words, it seems that no discernible progress has been made.

**  Meanwhile, it turns out that the Pentagon Papers that were famously leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 are still technically classified, observed historian John Prados of the National Security Archive this week.  The four volumes of diplomatic materials that Ellsberg withheld from release (because he considered them too sensitive) have been formally declassified.  But the forty-three volumes of leaked materials, though widely republished, have never undergone declassification review, Prados said.  This means that every public and private library that has a copy of the Papers is the unofficial (and unauthorized) custodian of Top Secret government records.  This is our classification system as it exists today.

**  And this week it emerged that zealous security officials had blocked Air Force computers from accessing the New York Times and other sites in order to prevent viewing of classified records.  This is the security policy equivalent of the gospel teaching “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”  But presumably that biblical injunction was never meant to be taken literally.  Someone should tell the Air Force.

In short, national security classification policy is in a state of stagnation, confusion and disarray — and not because of leaks.  Bringing it to good order will require a clear statement of vision, some determined leadership, and concrete action.  An intensive declassification campaign that would slash the size of the classification system to manageable proportions would be the right move, now.