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Advisory board calls for transformation of info classification system

Dec. 6, 2012 - 11:03AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Under the current system, agencies classify information as top secret, secret or confidential. The approach recommended by the advisory board would divvy up classified information into two categories: top secret and “lower level.”
Under the current system, agencies classify information as top secret, secret or confidential. The approach recommended by the advisory board would divvy up classified information into two categories: top secret and “lower level.” (Pete Souza / The White House via Getty Images)

A federal advisory board wants to winnow the national security classification system from three tiers of secrecy to two as a way to reduce unneeded secrecy.

Under the current system, in place since 1953, agencies classify information as top secret, secret or confidential. The new approach recommended by an advisory board created by Congress would divvy up classified information into two categories: top secret and “lower level.”

“We want to push the government out of its comfort zone to try to think through a new way of looking at this,” Nancy Soderberg, the chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, told reporters Wednesday.

Under the status quo, federal officials are supposed to classify information in accord with the level of potential damage to national security. By focusing instead on the “minimum level of protection needed” to ensure appropriate safeguarding and information-sharing, officials might decide in some cases not to classify information at all, the board said in a report set for release Thursday morning.

“The best way to deal with over-classification and promote information sharing is to manage risk by correctly assessing potential harm and classifying to meet the minimum level of protection needed, or often even keeping the information unclassified, the report said. “When considering classifying, every classifier should give serious consideration to declassification.”

The report said that under today’s system, classifiers often struggle to distinguish between the criteria for applying a confidential marking and a secret marking and default to the higher secret classification, “erring on the side of protection.”

“More difficult still is judging when to apply the criteria for the confidential marking rather than refraining from any classification,” the report said.

The board said the proposed new lower-level classification should not simply combine the confidential and secret categories. “Although some information previously marked as confidential may receive the lower-level marking in the new model, much more information should remain unclassified in the first instance,” the report said.

The report comes in response to a 2009 Obama administration executive order seeking ideas for fundamentally changing the classification system. It was sent to the White House last week.

Among the 14 recommendations:

• Allowing automatic declassification of information that’s sensitive for only a short period of time.

• Strengthening the National Declassification Center, which is struggling to deal with a backlog of records.

• Protect agency classifiers who decide that records don’t warrant secrecy.

Soderberg, who worked on national security issues as a senior official in the Clinton administration, conceded the difficulty of change, but added that the status quo is “unsustainable” in light of the vast quantities of information that agencies must now manage in the digital era.

Last year, agencies — not including the CIA and other intelligence agencies — spent $11.4 billion to protect secrets, more than double the amount a decade ago, according to a report by the Information Security Oversight Office, part of the National Archives and Records Administration. From 2008 to 2011, the total number of classification decisions quadrupled to more than 92 million.

If put into action, Soderberg said, the proposed changes would represent “the most sweeping reforms since the system of classification was created 70 years ago.”

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