from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 67
August 6, 2009

Secrecy News Blog:


The current Obama Administration review of classification policy will almost certainly produce an incremental adjustment to existing practices-- though hopefully with provisions for independent validation (or rejection) of agency classification decisions, strengthened oversight, expedited declassification, and so forth. But it is unlikely to lead to a wholesale replacement of the basic framework of the Cold War classification system that has lingered now for more than half a century. The "next generation" of national security information policy is still out of reach.

To hasten the development of more efficient and transparent information security policies, the forthcoming Obama executive order on classification could encourage experimental pilot projects in classification and declassification and related activities.

An agency head could be authorized to establish, with the approval of the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, a limited-scale initiative that departs from the otherwise binding requirements of the executive order in the interests of fostering innovation in classification policy. (ISOO concurrence would be needed to ensure that the pilot projects were designed to promote appropriate efficiency and transparency, not to provide a new pretext for intensified secrecy.)

What kind of initiatives might these be? One possibility would be to collapse the multi-tiered classification system into a single level, so that information within the domain of the pilot project would either be "classified" or "unclassified" -- other classification levels and compartments would not be permitted. Another possibility would be to undertake ambitious bulk declassification projects that have an elevated risk of disclosure of classified information beyond what is normally tolerated. This would provide a realistic but small-scale indication of the "damage" that could ensue from forgoing expensive, time-consuming declassification review. Other initiatives could experiment with discretionary releases of classified information, prohibitions against use of the "need to know" principle, and similar deviations from the norm.

One precedent or model for this kind of approach is the congressionally-mandated program for Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory (STRL) demonstration projects, which are used to promote innovation in Defense Department personnel management policies. Those projects have been authorized to waive existing laws and regulations on human resources management.

"The STRL demonstration projects are the vehicles through which the... Department of Defense will determine whether changes in personnel management concepts, policies, or procedures would result in improved laboratory performance and contribute to improved DoD or Federal personnel management," according to a DoD directive issued just last week.

"In the most general terms, a demonstration project provides a means for testing and introducing beneficial change in Government-wide human resources management systems," according to an earlier Air Force Fact Sheet.

The Air Force identified several successful policy innovations that have been developed in this way, such as the Voluntary Emeritus Corps that permits senior scientists to continue their research into retirement while mentoring younger scientists in Air Force laboratories. Similar creativity is desperately needed in the stagnant realm of government secrecy policy.

The point is to promote unorthodox approaches to security policy that may involve heightened risk, but that also offer significant potential improvements in operational performance, cost reduction and/or transparency. Most of these efforts could well fail. But some might prove fruitful, and worth replicating on a larger scale. In this way, the Obama executive order could help pave the way for the executive order after next, and for a new, more nimble 21st century information policy.


"Implementation of the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI)," the notoriously secretive program "which was established by President Bush in National Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23 in January 2008, continues at this time."

That interesting reminder was mentioned in passing in newly disclosed answers to questions for the record submitted by the Director of National Intelligence to the Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2009 following the DNI's annual threat briefing last February.

Some other notable observations from the DNI's forty pages of wide-ranging answers to Senators' questions include:

Some of the DNI's statements are surprisingly flimsy. For example, he declares that "In 2003, the Russian military prepared for an exercise that included attacking U.S. satellites to disrupt the NAVSTAR global positioning system, the Keyhole optical-electronic reconnaissance satellites, and the Lacrosse radar reconnaissance system with the intent of 'blinding' the Pentagon and denying it the opportunity to use precision weapons against Russia."

This is an odd assertion, first, because intelligence officials rarely if ever use the old Keyhole or Lacrosse satellite names in unclassified public statements. And on closer inspection, it turns out that the DNI's statement was simply lifted, almost word for word, from a news story that appeared in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on May 14, 2003. (It was also picked up by the online on May 18, 2003.) The Russian story lazily attributed its claim regarding the anti-satellite exercise to "certain reports." The DNI repeated the Nezavisimaya Gazeta item nearly verbatim, presenting it as an established fact, with no attribution at all.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has renewed the valuable tradition of submitting unclassified questions for the record to senior intelligence officials following the Committee's annual threat briefing. Unfortunately, the congressional publication schedule is such that the answers to the questions often do not appear for one or even two years after they are prepared. The latest DNI responses to questions for the record, transmitted in April, were obtained by the Federation of American Scientists this week through the Freedom of Information Act.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

See also "Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works" by Steven Aftergood, Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 27, no. 2, Spring 2009:

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