from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2015, Issue No. 39
June 4, 2015

Secrecy News Blog:


The number of newly created national security secrets dropped to a record low level last year, but the financial costs of protecting classified information increased sharply, according to the latest data from the Information Security Oversight Office.

Original classification activity -- meaning the designation of new classified information -- declined by 20 percent in 2014 to a historic low of 46,800 original classification decisions, ISOO said in its new annual report for Fiscal Year 2014.

It was the fourth consecutive year of reductions in original classifications. ISOO has never reported a smaller number of original classification decisions. Ten years earlier (FY 2004), for example, original classification activity was reported at 351,150 original classification decisions.

What accounts for the continuing drop-off in the creation of new secrets? The answer is not entirely clear. It is in part a reflection of changes in the national security environment, as well as the vagaries of how agencies report their classification practices. ISOO director John P. Fitzpatrick said it was also likely to be a consequence of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review that was performed under the Obama executive order in 2010-2012 in an effort to improve the quality of agency classification guides.

In the course of that Review, all existing guides were "scrubbed" to ensure that they provided current classification guidance and in some cases they were also refined to improve their clarity. One result, Mr. Fitzpatrick said yesterday, was that some agency classification decisions that might have otherwise been counted as new secrets were instead deemed to be "derivative" classification decisions that were based on the improved classification guidance.

Significantly, however, the volume of derivative classification decisions also declined for the past two years. Therefore, even if some reported classification actions were displaced from the original classification category to the derivative classification category, the overall result is still a net reduction in new national security classification activity, a significant policy achievement in itself.

While the number of new secrets dropped to a record low last year, however, the cost of protecting those secrets reached a record high.

"The total security classification cost estimate within Government for FY 2014 is $14.98 billion," the ISOO report said, up from $11.63 billion in FY 2013.

The increase was primarily due to Department of Defense expenditures on information systems security, which increased by a reported $3.2 billion in FY 2014.

While some of the reported increase can be explained by improved accounting methods, much of it "was attributable to the many new initiatives underway in the aftermath of the serious security breaches that have occurred in recent years," the ISOO report said. The breaches were not specified in the report, but major changes in security policy were prompted by the WikiLeaks disclosures of 2010.

These new DOD initiatives include measures to "improve network security by reducing anonymity, enhancing access controls and user monitoring, establishing enterprise auditing, restricting the removal of media, and developing insider threat programs."

"None of these improvements come without considerable cost," the ISOO report said.

The new ISOO report included several other notable observations, such as these:

* In FY 2014 there were 813 formal classification challenges filed by authorized holders of classified information -- government employees or contractors -- who believed the information was wrongly classified. In response to the challenges, agencies overturned the classification status of the information in whole or in part in 453 of the cases (56 percent). In FY 2013, by comparison, there were only 68 such challenges and only 12 of them led to changes in classification.

* The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel maintained its record of granting public appeals of Mandatory Declassification Review requests that had been denied by executive branch agencies in the majority of cases presented to it, in whole or in part. Out of 451 documents considered by the Panel on appeal, 181 were declassified in their entirety, and 157 were declassified in part. The continued classification of 113 documents was affirmed by the Panel.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review that apparently led to the recent reduction in national security classification must be performed every five years. The next such Review will soon begin and is due to be completed in 2017.


NASA has released a long-awaited Nuclear Power Assessment Study that examines the prospects for the use of nuclear power in civilian space missions over the next 20 years.

The Study concludes that there is a continuing demand for radioisotope power systems, which have been used in deep space exploration for decades, but that there is no imminent requirement for a new fission reactor program.

The 177-page Study, prepared for NASA by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, had been completed several months ago but was withheld from public release due to unspecified "security concerns," according to Space News. Those concerns may have involved the discussion of the proposed use of highly enriched uranium as fuel for a space reactor, or the handling of plutonium-238 for radioisotope power sources.

Nuclear power can be enabling for a variety of space missions because it offers high power density in compact, rugged form. Radioisotope power sources (in which the natural heat of decay is converted into electricity) have contributed to some of the space program's greatest achievements, including the Voyager I and II probes to the outer solar system and beyond. But development of nuclear reactor technology for use in space has been dogged by a repeated series of false starts in which anticipated mission requirements failed to materialize.

"The United States has spent billions of dollars on space reactor programs, which have resulted in only one flight of an FPS [fission power source]," the new NASA report noted. That was the 1965 launch of the SNAP 10-A reactor on the SNAPSHOT mission. It had an electrical failure after a month's operation and "it remains in a 1300-km altitude, 'nuclear-safe' orbit, although debris-shedding events of some level may have occurred," the report said.

The development and use of space nuclear power raises potential environmental safety and public health issues. As a result, the NASA report said, "it may be prudent to build in more time in the development schedule for the first launch of a new space reactor. Public interest would likely be large, and it is possible that opposition could be substantial."

In any case, specific presidential approval is required for the launch of a nuclear power source into space, pursuant to Presidential Directive 25 of 1977.

"For any U.S. space mission involving the use of RPS [radioisotope power sources], radioisotope heating units, nuclear reactors, or a major nuclear source, launch approval must be obtained from the Office of the President," the report noted.


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

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