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.”

The Board indicates these recommendations will only succeed if Obama is determined to see that an implementation strategy with vigorous oversight is developed. That may be troubling for those who have grown disgusted with his record on transparency and now deride any suggestion by his administration that they have been The Most Transparent Administration Ever™.


According to the report, declassification is cumbersome because each agency claims an “equity” in records. They are “reluctant to share their declassification guidelines.” This makes declassification inefficient and, since the “public’s right to know” is not seen as part of any agency’s “national security mission,” the culture of secrecy in institutions amplifies the problem.

The Board points out, “Agencies are currently creating petabytes of classified information annually, which quickly outpaces the amount of information the Government has declassified in total in the previous seventeen years since Executive Order 12958 established the policy of automatic declassification for 25 year old records.” Furthermore, “at one intelligence agency alone, it is estimated that approximately 1 petabyte of classified records data accumulates every 18 months. One petabyte of information is equivalent to approximately 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text, or about 13.3 years of High- Definition video.”

How can government employees tasked with declassification keep pace with this classification? Currently, it is estimated “one full-time employee can review 10 four-drawer filing cabinets of text records in one year. In the above example, it is estimated that one intelligence agency would, therefore, require two million employees to review manually its one petabyte of information each year.” Millions of additional employees would be needed for reviews if the current system for classifying government information was maintained.

Historically, the process for classifying information has been the same for at least the past 70 years. The report describes:

…[M]ethods for identifying, marking, handling and storing sensitive information have remained fairly constant. Users make decisions to assign information to one of three current categories based on loosely defined levels of presumed “damage” to national security. Estimating the level of damage that might result from unauthorized release is often an exercise in speculation and more art than science, particularly when prediction of damage is inconclusive. Agencies often make these decisions in isolation, without input from other classifying agencies or knowledge of prior declassification actions. The vagaries in this process lead to imprecise and excessive classification…

In the report’s summary of history, problems of over-classification worsened in the 1980s, when “an increasingly complex national security posture resulted in a sharp increase in compartmented and special access programs.”

These highly sensitive programs required new safeguarding, handling, and disseminating practices that were added piecemeal to a system never intended to manage such a complicated information framework. The number of cleared users increased dramatically, while the secrecy culture was compounded with more sub-categories and markings. No operational incentives existed to impose limits, and the size and complexity of the system were effectively masked from real oversight. Stove-piping not only segregated classified information, but also kept users from seeing how bloated the system had become…

Ronald Reagan was president during this period and was responsible for an incredible growth in US interventions and overseas covert operations.

The report concludes—as any group of reasonable people should—that, “Secrecy makes accountability more difficult.” It adds, “At its most benign, secrecy impedes informed government decisions and an informed public; at worst, it enables corruption and malfeasance.” And it finds over-classification increases the likelihood that there will be “unauthorized disclosures” or leaks.

Throughout the past year, there have been periods of hysteria among the political class in Washington over the disclosure of national security information. The release of classified information by WikiLeaks, allegedly provided to the media organization by Pfc. Bradley Manning, led President Barack Obama to order action that encouraged agencies to tighten the flow of information and impose more restrictions and limits on accessing information to detect individuals who might decide to disclose information without proper authorization.  A record number of whistleblowers have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits for information from the CIA on how it decides whom to target with drones and the legal basis for such decisions. The Obama administration has fought the release while at the same time engaging in selective leaking to newspapers like the New York Times and having officials give speeches about the targeted killing program as if that might be an acceptable substitute for transparency. It is not and is much closer to propaganda because the public is seeing only what the Obama administration wants the public to see so it can keep expanding the extrajudicial and rather dystopian program.

All of this has contributed to the further entrenching of secrecy, which is why this report is noteworthy. It signals the response to WikiLeaks is overbearing and fool-headed and should be completely reversed. It does not accept the notion that information should be secret so officials can avoid accountability for their actions. And it should be regarded as a complete indictment of the culture of secrecy in Washington.