Agencies keep too many documents classified, president told

Lisa S./

Agencies charged with protecting national security are using a declassification system that is out of date and unable to keep up with the expanding volume of government documents, a presidentially appointed board has reported.

The Public Interest Declassification Board, a group of military veterans, former officials and academics set up to implement a 2009 transparency directive from President Obama, in late November sent the president a set of 14 recommendations designed to modernize agency procedures while continuing to protect vital secrets. The group’s report was made public Thursday.

“We believe the current classification and declassification systems are outdated and incapable of dealing adequately with the large volumes of classified information generated in an era of digital communications and information systems,” wrote committee chairman Nancy Soderberg, a Clinton administration National Security Council classification specialist now running the nonprofit Connect U.S. Fund, in a cover letter to Obama. “Overcoming entrenched practices that no longer serve the purpose of protecting our national security will prove difficult. We believe it will require a White House-led steering committee to drive reform, led by a chair that is carefully selected and appointed with specific authorities that you grant.”

Released at a public meeting at the National Archives and Records Administration, the report recommends: 

  • that the president appoint a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee to oversee implementation of the board’s recommendations to modernize the current system of classification and declassification;
  • that classification be simplified and rationalized by placing national security information in only two classification categories;
  • and that the threshold for classifying in the two-tiered system be adjusted to align the level of protection with the level of harm anticipated in the event of unauthorized release.

“Agencies should recognize in policy and practice a `safe harbor’ protection for clas¬sifiers who adhere to rigorous risk management practices and determine in good faith to classify information at a lower level or not at all,” the report said. “Classifiers face incentives that bias their decisions toward classification. They should be encouraged and rewarded -- and at least not pun¬ished -- for good-faith decisions that certain informa¬tion should remain unclassified.”

Agencies most affected include the Defense, State and Energy departments as well as the CIA.

“Some of the board’s specific recommendations are naturally subject to debate,” wrote Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, in his blog. “A proposal to reduce the current three-level classification system to two levels was previously recommended… in 1994 but was ultimately abandoned as unworkable. A proposal to base classification decisions on the degree of protection required for information rather than on the damage that might result from its disclosure is a subtle change that may be worth considering,” he said.

“But these are quibbles in comparison to the principal PIDB recommendation in favor of presidential leadership of secrecy reform, and establishment of a presidentially led steering committee to execute needed changes throughout the government.”

(Image via Lisa S./

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.