Commitment Analysis: Transforming the Security Classification System

The following is written by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. 

The commitments made in the second National Action Plan concerning security classification policy have several commendable features, as well as some questionable aspects.

The Plan properly recognizes that today’s classification system is a problem that requires remedial attention. In fact, classification is implicated in many ongoing national security policy debates, including current controversies over surveillance policy, the adequacy of oversight, and much more. A meaningful reduction in the scope and application of secrecy would thus have a salutary effect in many areas.

Beyond acknowledging the problem, the National Action Plan provides a promising new mechanism for addressing the problem — a White House-led Security Classification Reform Committee. This entity will constitute a new venue for assessing and implementing changes to classification policy throughout the executive branch. By virtue of its White House leadership, the Committee may be expected to command agency attention in a way that other initiatives have failed to do.  Significantly, it is also tasked to meet periodically with external stakeholders, presenting new opportunities for public engagement and advocacy on these issues.

The other specific commitments in the National Action Plan are less ambitious and probably less consequential. There is certainly a need to declassify historical records concerning nuclear weapons programs, known as Formerly Restricted Data. But a more elegant solution would be to eliminate the FRD category entirely (though this would require legislative action). Its records could then be absorbed into the regular national security information system for declassification. Piloting technological tools for classification review and tracking ongoing declassification reviews are also sensible administrative steps, though they hardly qualify as transformative.

But fundamentally, the National Action Plan — like the government as a whole — does not have a clear, consensual idea of what is wrong with the classification system, and therefore it cannot provide clarity about how to proceed to fix it. For over half a century, no official would have disagreed with the assertion that classification must be "kept to the minimum required to meet national security needs." But somehow just asserting it, as the National Action Plan does, is inadequate to make it come true.

If there is too much classification today, that means that some of what is currently classified needs to be removed from classification controls. What is needed are new mechanisms to overturn existing classification judgments — as the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel often does, and as the FOIA litigation process and internal classification challenges occasionally do. A more structured set of procedures to correct classification errors and misjudgments is required.  The autonomy that agencies currently enjoy in classifying information will have to be curtailed and made subject to external review and adjustment.

The recommendations of the Public Interest Declassification Board cited in the National Action Plan are a mixed bag, and it is not clear to outside observers that they would actually reduce overclassification. One of the Board's recommendations — to compress the current three-level classification system to two levels — would arguably increase overclassification because it would raise the classification of the lowest level of classified material, not eliminate it. That seems hard to justify.

It is disconcerting to see that the National Action Plan refers to the new White House-led Committee variously as the "Security Classification Reform Committee" and as the "Classification Review Committee."  Which is it? This lack of precision and consistency may be a sign that the idea of a Committee has been adopted without careful thought or a clear agenda.

The key point, however, is that the National Action Plan officially puts classification reform on the agenda. There is a new venue — the White House-led Committee — for advocating and implementing potential changes in policy. So there is a path forward.

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