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Defense Information and Electronics Report
November 30, 2001
reposted with permission

ISOO Report Shows High Levels of Classification, Declassification

The federal government, led by the Defense Department, is continuing a recent trend of declassifying larger numbers of historically significant documents than were declassified in earlier years, according to a new report from the government office responsible for overseeing secrecy policy.

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which takes policy guidance from the National Security Council but is administratively part of the National Archives and Records Administration, released its fiscal year 2000 report on classification and declassification efforts Nov. 27, after months of delays. The report is the last annual report during the tenure of outgoing ISOO Director Steven Garfinkel.

“In spite of increasing obstacles, the agencies of the executive branch continue to declassify unprecedented numbers of records of permanent historical value,” the report stated. This includes almost 75 million pages of records in fiscal year 2000, according to the report.

The Defense Department was responsible for the majority of these newly available records and “declassified over 51 million pages of permanently valuable records in FY 2000,” the report states. “DOD's total represents 69 percent of the total number of pages declassified in FY 2000.”

While large numbers of documents were declassified, larger numbers of new documents are at the same time being recorded as new classifications. “Original classification decisions increased by almost 51,191 to 220,926,” the report states. “This figure represents an increase of 30 percent over the number of original classification decisions reported in fiscal year 1999.”

This apparently huge increase in the number of documents kept secret, however, is due more to an outmoded system for collecting data on classification decisions than to an actual increase of such magnitude, according to the report.

Specifically, “information once exchanged in millions of secure telephone conversations that clearly were not counted as classification decisions is now being relayed through secure e-mail which is electronically tabulated and counted as classification decisions,” Garfinkel writes in a letter to the president accompanying the report.

Almost all of these increases were reported by the State Department.

The report details classification and declassification activity carried out under Executive Order 12958, “Classified National Security Information,” issued by then-President Clinton April 17, 1995. The system implemented under that executive order, as the report states, “marked a significant departure from the secrecy policies of the past.”

The most significant feature of the new classification system is a policy that “requires the automatic declassification of most historically valuable information that is 25 years old,” the report states. “In the past, these older records remained classified indefinitely,” it states.

The result of the new policy is a dramatic increase in declassification over the past five years. From 1980 to 1994, for example, a total of 188.3 million pages were declassified, an average of just 12.6 million pages per year, according to the report. In fiscal year 1996 alone, however, the year after the new rules were put in place, about 196 million pages were declassified. The average under the current executive order has been about 144 million pages per year.

In addition to the continuing large volume of declassification, another “positive sign” resulting from E.O. 12958 is that “each of the major classifying agencies has in place an infrastructure for systematic review for declassification, something that almost none of these agencies had” before 1995.

“The ability . . . to protect information in our national security interest has been enhanced by the massive reduction in the number of documents that are no longer sensitive but remained unnecessarily classified,” the report states.

“That is a terribly important message that you don't hear very often,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. Most people assume that declassification implies a weak national security stance, Aftergood said.

In reality, declassification contributes to national security by getting massive amounts of unnecessarily classified documents out of the system, thereby freeing up resources for necessary classification efforts, he said.

The report also identified “negative signs” uncovered by the latest review.

First, “declassification and public access have been slowed by legislation that, in ISOO's view, amounted to unnecessary overkill,” the report states. This is an unusual case of a government agency criticizing Congressional action, Aftergood said.

The legislation in question was passed in 1999 because Congress was concerned that nuclear weapons information was being inadvertently exposed through declassified documents. The legislation “mandated a re-review,” of documents pertaining to nuclear weapons that had already been declassified, Aftergood said, resulting in a diversion of resources from normal declassification activity. This accounts for fiscal year 2000 declassification numbers being lower than other years since 1995.

Whether or not the danger justified the diversion of resources is debatable, Aftergood said.

Another problem cited in the report is that “declassification remains so prolific that it exceeds the ability of agency systems and resources to process the records for public access, and the ability to advise other agencies and the public about what information has been declassified,” the report states. Even though information is being declassified, in other words, it is slow to be made available for public scrutiny at the National Archives.

Garfinkel, who has been ISOO director for more than two decades and is set to retire at the end of the year, told Defense Information and Electronics Report last month that his “great fear” is that the war on terrorism will have the effect of stemming the flow of regularly declassified documents.

The security climate during the war could lead to an overreaction by policy makers, and resources needed to fight the war on terrorism could divert the funds of government agencies away from declassification programs, he said then.

Garfinkel said last month the ISOO was in the midst of a review of classification policy -- something that usually takes place when a new administration takes power. This process to review and propose amendments to current secrecy policy is estimated to take up to a year, Aftergood told DI&ER. -- Hampton Stephens

Copyright 2001 Inside Washington Publishers

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