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Fewer new documents classified as secret, report finds

May. 29, 2012 - 04:32PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The government is creating fewer new classified documents containing national security secrets, according to a new report released Tuesday. But at least one expert questions the findings’ validity.

The number of new documents — technically known as “original classification” decisions — came to about 127,100 in 2011, a 43 percent decline from 2010, according to the report released by the Information Security Oversight Office, part of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Agencies are supposed to classify information only if they expect “identifiable or describable damage” to national security to result from unauthorized disclosure, under a 2009 executive order from President Obama. Under standard classification procedures, agencies can designate records as confidential, secret or top secret.

Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, questioned the report’s figures. The CIA, which operates mostly in secret, reported just four original classification decisions last year, he said, while the State Department counted almost 49,000.

On that score, the report “doesn’t tell you anything.” Aftergood said. “That is the problem.”

Oversight office officials, who have previously acknowledged that agency-by-agency secrecy statistics may not always be comparable, are beginning to “re-evaluate” the categories of information that agencies are asked to provide, the new report says. Any changes could show up in next year’s compilation, said John Fitzpatrick, the oversight office’s director.

In addition, the Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory panel connected to the oversight office, will release its recommendations for a broader transformation of the classification system late this summer, he said.

As in 2010, top classifiers included the Defense, State and Justice departments, as well as the Army and Executive Office of the President.

Also, the number of federal employees with the authority to create national security secrets dipped last year to its lowest level on record, according to the report.

The report shows that 2,362 federal employees had “original classification authority,” down slightly from the 2010 total of 2,378. In 1980, 7,149 employees had such authority.

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