Agencies keep too many documents classified, president told

Lisa S./Shutterstock.com

Agencies charged with protecting national security are using a declassification system that is out of date and unable to keep up with the expanding volume of government documents, a presidentially appointed board has reported.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“We believe the current classification and declassification systems are outdated and incapable of dealing adequately with the large volumes of classified information generated in an era of digital communications and information systems,”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./Shutterstock.com)

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

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

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

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