Transforming Classification, or Not

05.18.11 | 1 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Public Interest Declassification Board, a White House advisory body, was asked by President Obama to develop recommendations for a “fundamental transformation” of the national security classification system.  The Board developed several proposals of its own and solicited others from interested members of the public.  All of those, including one from the Federation of American Scientists, have now been posted online for public comment.

The Board will hold a public meeting on May 26 at the National Archives to discuss the proposals.

While well-intentioned, the process suffers from several limitations.  First, the President did not specify what manner of “transformation” he had in mind.  This is problematic because the path selected for transformation naturally depends on the desired goal.  Second, the Board has no particular influence or leverage that it can exert to advance its ultimate recommendations.  Even at the White House, most relevant national security personnel seem to be unaware of or uninterested in the Board’s deliberations.  Finally, there is no internal incentive to drive transformation and no visible leadership to compel it.

In truth, the classification system is undergoing transformation at every moment, but mostly in undesirable ways.  Thus, during President Obama’s first full year in office, the number of “original classification decisions,” or new secrets, grew by 22.6 percent, according to the latest annual report (pdf) from the Information Security Oversight Office.