System of Classification for Information Enables Corruption, Increases Likelihood of Leaks

Image from the Public Interest Declassification Board report "Transforming Classification"

The Cold War system of classifying and declassifying information held by United States government agencies is “overly complex, “keeps too many secrets” for to long and obstructs information sharing inside government and with the public, according to a report produced by a board of individuals that President Barack Obama ordered on classified information.

As part of an executive order issued by Obama on December 29, 2009, a Public Interest Declassification Board formed to research and open up a discussion on how to fix a system “fraught with problems.” The Board proposed recommendations in a report released last week and, for the most part, it is remarkable because it calls for a shift in the culture that leads to “unwarranted classification.” It urges the White House to push agencies to help overhaul the systems of classification and declassification so more information is made public automatically and efficiently and less information is kept secret for long periods of time.

The report recommends the system be simplified so “national security information” is placed into only two categories – a Higher-Level category and a Lower-Level category. Top Secret information would be in the Higher-Level category while all other classified information would be in the Lower-Level category and there would be standards requiring a “lower level of protection” for this information. It would work just like this two-tiered system works in intelligence or defense agencies, which classify Top Secret information on Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and Secret, Confidential and Unclassified/For Official Use Only information on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet)

The two tiers would be “defined and distinguished by the level of identifiable protection needed to safeguard and share information appropriately, and these protection levels would determine whether classification is warranted, at what level, and for how long.” Identifying a “specific consequence of release of the classified information and the potential harm to the national security of limiting the sharing of the information” would be part of procedure. Protection of the information would replace the current practice of presuming what “damage” could occur. Instead, there would be a focus on the minimum protection necessary for sensitive information with the hope that users would classify information at the lowest levels or even keep it unclassified.

The report recommends that “specific protections accorded intelligence and non-intelligence sources and methods” be “better defined and distinguished.” It should be easier to discern what is and is not an “intelligence source.” Also, “intelligence methods” should be “more precisely defined” so they can be appropriately classified and then eventually declassified.

System of Classification for Information Enables Corruption, Increases Likelihood of Leaks

Image from the Public Interest Declassification Board report "Transforming Classification"

The Cold War system of classifying and declassifying information held by United States government agencies is “overly complex,” “keeps too many secrets” for too long and obstructs information sharing inside government and with the public, according to a report produced by a board of individuals that President Barack Obama ordered on classified information.

As part of an executive order issued by Obama on December 29, 2009, a Public Interest Declassification Board formed to research and open up a discussion on how to fix a system “fraught with problems.” The Board proposed recommendations in a report released last week and, for the most part, it is remarkable because it calls for a shift in the culture that leads to “unwarranted classification.” It urges the White House to push agencies to help overhaul the systems of classification and declassification so more information is made public automatically and efficiently and less information is kept secret for long periods of time.

The report recommends the system be simplified so “national security information” is placed into only two categories – a Higher-Level category and a Lower-Level category. Top Secret information would be in the Higher-Level category while all other classified information would be in the Lower-Level category and there would be standards requiring a “lower level of protection” for this information. It would work just like this two-tiered system works in intelligence or defense agencies, which classify Top Secret information on Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and Secret, Confidential and Unclassified/For Official Use Only information on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet)

The two tiers would be “defined and distinguished by the level of identifiable protection needed to safeguard and share information appropriately, and these protection levels would determine whether classification is warranted, at what level, and for how long.” Identifying a “specific consequence of release of the classified information and the potential harm to the national security of limiting the sharing of the information” would be part of procedure. Protection of the information would replace the current practice of presuming what “damage” could occur. Instead, there would be a focus on the minimum protection necessary for sensitive information with the hope that users would classify information at the lowest levels or even keep it unclassified.

The report recommends that “specific protections accorded intelligence and non-intelligence sources and methods” be “better defined and distinguished.” It should be easier to discern what is and is not an “intelligence source.” Also, “intelligence methods” should be “more precisely defined” so they can be appropriately classified and then eventually declassified.

The Board calls for classified information considered “operational or based on a specific date or event” to be “automatically declassified without additional review or exemption when that operation or event passes.” For example, “operational and tactical military information regarding Operation Desert Storm, including records ‘born digital,’ could been classified as “Short-term” at the time the records were created.” On February 28, 1991, a cease-fire was declared. This could have been the date when automatic declassification of information no longer requiring protection occurred. This would “enable study by the government and civilian historical communities at the earliest permissible time.”

To make possible the “cultural shift” necessary for encouraging declassification in practice, there should be a “safe harbor” for those “classifiers who adhere to proper risk management practices” and when they are unsure decide not to classify.

In terms of transforming declassification, the report calls for the “systematic declassification review of historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) information.” For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “a US Air Force U-2 photoreconnaissance plane photographed Soviet missile launch facilities under construction in Cuba” on October 16, 1962. The missile launchers were designed to reach the continental United States and led to a crisis that brought the Soviet Union and United States to the brink of nuclear conflict.

It was a critical event in Cold War history yet, according to the report, “key information about the negotiations and settlement fifty years ago have not been declassified due to restrictions on access to FRD information.” The information remains “officially classified” and “inaccessible,” however, the report notes much of the information is “available from sources outside of the U.S. Government – a factor that contributes to public cynicism about classification.”

The report also suggests government agencies “prioritize the review of historically significant records and ensure timely transfer to the National Archives.” (more…)