Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
A White House advisory panel is calling for a dramatic rethinking of how the government keeps its secrets.
Among its proposals:
Reduce classification levels from three to two as one way to reduce unneeded secrecy. Under the current system, in place since 1953, agencies classify information as top secret, secret or confidential. The board’s proposal would divvy up classified information into two categories: top secret and a “lower level.”
Automatically declassify information that’s sensitive for only a short time. Most records now remain classified for at least 25 years.
Strengthen the National Declassification Center, a 3-year-old agency within the National Archives and Records Administration charged with declassifying old materials. The tiny agency is struggling to process a backlog of 366 million records that have passed the quarter-century mark.
The current classification system “is wholly incapable of dealing with the enormous volumes of information generated in this age of technology,” said Nancy Soderberg, chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board.
Underlying the call for change is concern that the ever-growing body of secrets — many of them automatically generated nowadays by computer — is undermining respect for the classification system and leading to more unauthorized disclosures. The board’s recommendations would also save money, Soderberg said, because the number of man-hours needed to declassify records is “enormous.”
In fiscal 2011, 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 the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration.
From 2008 to 2011, the total number of classification decisions quadrupled to more than 92 million.
The key now will be whether President Obama follows up, said Steve Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
With White House leadership, he said, “all the other pieces will fall into place.”
The seven-member board delivered its report to Obama on Nov. 27. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, did not respond to emailed requests for comment late last week.
Bill Leary, a panel member who retired from the National Security Council last year, said he expects the administration to take the recommendations seriously, but he acknowledged that “a lot of work” lies ahead. “There will be a lot of disagreement, which as far as we’re concerned is fine and healthy,” he said.
Senior national security officials need to “focus on these issues and figure out a better solution if ours is not the best one,” Leary added. “I think we have properly identified the problems.”
Chief among those problems is the torrent of digital information, measured in the millions of gigabytes, that agencies must manage. This includes everything from video teleconferencing footage to battlefield Twitter feeds, said retired Adm. William Studeman, a former deputy director of the CIA, another board member.
“We are literally at an inflection point in the context of records,” he said. “It is imperative for us to figure out how we’re going to get ready for this era.”
The explosion of data is alarming some executives who oversee the classification system. Without an overhaul, “government business itself — as well as public access — will be impossible,” Harry Cooper, the CIA’s chief of classification management, told the board at a forum last year. Through an agency spokesman, Cooper declined comment last week on the panel’s recommendations.
The board has already gotten “a number of negative comments“ on its proposals from some agencies, Soderberg told Obama in a letter accompanying the report. “There is little recognition among practitioners that there is a fundamental problem.”
At last week’s meeting marking the report’s release, for example, an Air Force supervisory records declassification specialist challenged the recommendation to trim the number of classification levels from three to two. “It would be like saying the criminal justice system has too many different penalties — let’s just have probation and life imprisonment,” Michael Binder told the board during a question-and-answer session.
The board defended its recommendation to pare down the number of classification categories from three to two. It said in the report that 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’s arrival comes three years after Obama charged the congressionally created board in an executive order to forward ideas for a “more fundamental transformation” of the classification system.
To implement its recommendations, the panel urges the White House to create a steering committee made up of senior officials drawn from the national security and records management establishments.
The committee would set priorities and enforce benchmarks governmentwide in the face of what could be significant agency opposition.
“We believe strongly that this process must be driven by the White House,” said Soderberg, who served as a senior national security official in the Clinton administration. “These are very difficult issues. Change comes hard to the government.”