Steven Aftergood: 3,103 Classification Guides Now 2,234 – Volumn of Classification Continues

Government, Ineptitude, Military
Steven Aftergood


The classification guides that function as the framework for national security secrecy underwent a substantial overhaul during the past two years.  As a result of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a large fraction of existing classification guidance has been eliminated, and at least some existing categories of classified information have been declassified.

Out of 3,103 classification guides, or compilations of classification instructions, that were reviewed by national security agencies, 869 were either cancelled or consolidated, the National Archives announced in a news release today.

The purpose of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, mandated by President Obama's executive order 13526 (section 1.9), was “to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.”

The newly revised guidance should provide increased clarity and specificity about what is to be classified, along with greater traceability in identifying the justification for classification.

But it is less clear that the Review will result in a diminished volume of classified information.

John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), had asked agencies to address “how much information that was classified is no longer classified as a result of the Review.”

Despite his instruction, most agencies did not discuss this central issue in their reports to ISOO.  But a few of them did.

The Department of Homeland Security indicated that 157 previously classified subtopics “were determined to no longer require classification.”

The Central Intelligence Agency reported that “some previously classified information [is] now listed as ‘unclassified'” following the Fundamental Review.

“Several categories of telecommunications information previously classified will no longer be classified,” the State Department said in its report.

Although the Fundamental Review was supposed to incorporate the “broadest possible range of perspectives” (according to the 2010 ISOO implementing directive), most agencies did not consult persons outside their agency, and none of them provided for public input, as far as is known.  (By contrast, the Department of Energy's 1995 Fundamental Classification Policy Review, which served as a prototype for the present Review, invited public comment at the beginning and the end of the process.)

It is a demonstrable fact that agencies left to their own devices will overclassify information or classify it unnecessarily.  Whenever outside review is permitted, even if it is just within the executive branch, agency classification decisions are regularly overturned, as the record of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel consistently shows.

It follows that by limiting the scope of external review, and excluding public input altogether, the impact of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review on curbing overclassification was more muted than it could have been.

Phi Beta Iota:  A separate classification guide generally means some sort of compartmented program or autonomous unit that considers existing classification guides insufficient or inapplicable.  When combined with the recent book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, one obtains a vague but oddly confirming notion of how distributed, inefficient, and wasteful the US secret intelligence community may be.  $80 billion divided by 2,234 comes out to $35,810,205.91 million dollars each.  So somewhere out there, the US taxpayer not only has 16+ agencies costing $80 billion a year, but 2,234 autonomous “programs” or “projects” or “compartments, each spending an average of $36 million dollars a year.  To the US IC's credit, cutting classification guides by 28% is seriously impressive, in our view–certainly worthy of praise…..but 2,234 separate distinct classification guides?  This is an “indicator” of chaos and incoherence of the first order–precisely what Donald Rumsfeld concluded he was facing when he discovered that none of the people briefing him–ostensibly the President's direct representative–on missile matters, had any clue about what all the others knew, each in isolation.  This specific number, 2,234, is probably closely correlated with the number of codeword compartments, a third at CIA and two thirds across DoD including Special Operations.  2,234.  A very interesting number.

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