U.S. Intelligence Agencies Rethink Classification Policy
The United States government is thinking about coming up with a coherent system for dealing with classified information. Steven Aftergood has details.
U.S. intelligence agencies have embarked upon a process to develop a uniform classification policy and a single classification guide that could be used by the entire U.S. intelligence community, according to a newly obtained report (pdf) from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The way that intelligence agencies classify information is not only frustrating to outsiders, as it is intended to be, but it has also impeded interagency cooperation and degraded agency performance.
“The definitions of ‘national security’ and what constitutes ‘intelligence’ — and thus what must be classified — are unclear,” the review team found. “Many interpretations exist concerning what constitutes harm or the degree of harm that might result from improper disclosure of the information, often leading to inconsistent or contradictory guidelines from different agencies.” “There appears to be no common understanding of classification levels among the classification guides reviewed by the team, nor any consistent guidance as to what constitutes ‘damage,’ ’serious damage,’ or ‘exceptionally grave damage’ to national security… There is wide variance in application of classification levels.”
Among the recommendations presented in the initial review were that original classification authorities should specify clearly the basis for classifying information, e.g. whether the sensitivity derives from the content of the information, or the source of the information, or the method by which it is analyzed, the date or location it was acquired, etc. Current policy requires that the classifier be “able” to describe the basis for classification but not that he or she in fact do so.
Coming up with a less lousy system shouldn’t be hard but Steven is rightly skeptical:
First, it assumes that consistency in classification is intrinsically desirable and should therefore be imposed by a community-wide classification guide. But consistency is at most a secondary virtue. When a classification policy is poorly justified, it is preferable for it to be inconsistently applied, as in the case of intelligence budget secrecy (see below).
Second, the review does not touch upon what is probably the single most necessary change in intelligence classification policy, namely the need to narrow the definition of intelligence sources and methods that require protection. Almost anything can serve as an intelligence source or method, including a subscription to the daily newspaper. But not every intelligence source or method requires or deserves classification or other protection from disclosure.
It’s axiomatic that coming up with system that is both standardized and lousy is a bad thing. But the second issue is really the key: Too many things are deemed classifiable and, once that decision is made, it’s hard to unclassify the material because of bureaucratic inertia.
Researching my dissertation in the early 1990s, I did archival research of military documents from 1943-1948 relating to the “roles and missions” debate (that is, what the proper roles of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were vis-a-vis one another). An amazing amount of that material had only recently been de-classified even though none of it should ever have been classified. There were no technical details involved in these documents that would have been of value to the enemy; it was nothing more than bureaucratic infighting about whether the Navy should be permitted to keep its airplanes now that there was a Navy, whether the Marines should continue to be allowed to maintain, in effect, a second land Army, and so forth. Indeed, even press releases that were to be published in the New York Times a few hours hence were classified. That’s simply nonsense.
Sometimes, incidentally, the reverse error occurs. As the leader of a rocket artillery firing platoon in the closing days of the Cold War, I had a “battle book” containing maps with the detailed locations to which my unit would initially deploy for war. It contained the locations of my three launchers, my fire direction center, the other platoons in the battery, the battery tactical operations center, the other firing batteries, and the battalion headquarters. I was classified SECRET, which is the lowest level anyone bothers to pay attention to.