from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 11
February 8, 2012

Secrecy News Blog:


In a move that can only strengthen and improve oversight of the national security classification system, the Department of Defense Inspector General has begun a far-reaching review of Pentagon classification policy.

Among other things, the Inspector General review will focus on "efforts by the Department to decrease over-classification."

In response to the "Reducing Over-classification Act" enacted by Congress in 2010, the IG will "evaluate the policies, procedures, rules, regulations, or management practices that may be contributing to persistent misclassification of material." The Act was originally sponsored by Rep. Jane Harman and Sen. Joe Lieberman.

The IG notified the military service secretaries and DoD agency heads of its new classification oversight project in an October 26, 2011 memorandum obtained by Secrecy News.

For years, critics of secrecy policy including the Federation of American Scientists have called for a greater role for inspectors general in classification oversight, to augment the work of the Information Security Oversight Office. IGs typically offer several advantages: Since they are part of the executive branch, their involvement in classification policy does not raise thorny separation of powers issues. Moreover, as resident agency employees, IG investigators are already in place, they already hold all needed security clearances, and they should already be familiar with their agencies' programs and policies.

Best of all, they are poised to identify defective practices when they discover them.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy commenced two decades ago with a complaint we submitted to the DoD Inspector General regarding the classification of the Timber Wind nuclear rocket program as an "unacknowledged special access program." In its December 16, 1992 response, the IG determined that "the decision to protect the program using special program measures was not adequately justified." The IG further found that certain program information was safeguarded "for reasons that were not related to national security." The Timber Wind program did not survive.


A new book-length study of leaks of classified information published by the Defense Intelligence Agency's National Intelligence University contends that "the tension between maintaining national security secrets and the public's right to know cannot be 'solved', but can be better understood and more intelligently managed."

"Who Watches the Watchmen?" by Gary Ross explores the phenomenon of leaks from multiple angles, including their history, their prevalence and their consequences. Most interestingly, he considers the diverse motivations of leakers and of the reporters who solicit, receive and publish their disclosures. Some of these he finds defensible, and others not.

In the end, he advises that government officials should engage members of the media in a constructive dialog in order to avert the worst consequences of leaks.

"Proactively engaging with the media to examine the costs and benefits associated with unauthorized disclosures represents the greatest potential for reducing the perceived harm to national security," Mr. Ross writes.

By contrast, "Maintaining the status quo or attempting to legislate a solution both have proven to be ineffective methods for resolving the dilemma. True change can only occur if the Executive Branch is willing to invest the time and resources necessary to implement an approach focused on engagement with the media."

This is a congenial conclusion, which implies that punitive new legislation can be avoided and that remaining differences between reporters and government officials can be fruitfully discussed.

But it arguably misapprehends the harsh new policy landscape in the wake of the WikiLeaks episode (which is also discussed in the book). The status quo has been transformed in response to WikiLeaks in two ways that are unfavorable to leakers, justified or unjustified.

First, the threat of unauthorized disclosures has been elevated in the view of government officials to one of "the most menacing foreign intelligence threats in the next two to three years." In January 31 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, DNI James R. Clapper said that unauthorized disclosures of classified information had "caused significant damage to US interests." Further, he said, "We assess that trusted insiders using their access for malicious intent represent one of today's primary threats to US classified networks." "Engagement with the media" will not be the main response to such threats.

And second, WikiLeaks, which targeted legitimate and illegitimate secrets with equal vigor, has inspired and accelerated the development of new forensic tools and methods to identify the sources of unauthorized disclosures. Internal surveillance of classified networks is set to grow, with new mechanisms for tracking and auditing online activity by government employees. Whatever else might be true, the status quo of a few years ago has been left behind.


New reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following.

China's Vice President Xi Jinping Visits the United States: What Is at Stake?, February 6, 2012:

Lebanon and the Uprising in Syria: Issue for Congress, February 2, 2012:

Iran's Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, January 23, 2012:

Sourcing Policy: Selected Developments and Issues, February 7, 2012:

Smart Meter Data: Privacy and Cybersecurity, February 3, 2012:

Suicide Prevention Efforts of the Veterans Health Administration, February 3, 2012:

Constitutional Analysis of Suspicionless Drug Testing Requirements for the Receipt of Governmental Benefits, January 19, 2012:


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

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