Spy Chief Instructs Intel Community to Serve as Government's Declassification Role Model

James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence. James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

The federal government’s top spy chief wants the intelligence community to pave the way for reducing the amount of classified information across agencies, according to a recent memorandum from the director of national intelligence.

James Clapper sent the memo in March to leaders of the 17 agencies that comprise the intelligence community to kick of the 2017 Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, as required by a 2009 executive order signed by President Obama. The letter, unearthed by the Federation of American Scientists, said intelligence agencies had a unique role to play in the larger declassification process.

“As stewards of the nation's most sensitive information,” Clapper wrote, the IC should “take a leading role in reducing targeted classification activities that could extend to the larger federal government.”

Clapper asked agencies to examine four areas that could lead to fewer documents being classified, including eliminating the least protected level, known as “confidential.” He asked for input on the potential benefits and drawbacks of the change, noting it could simplify the classification process and force individuals to focus on only classifying items that would cause “demonstrable harm” if they were improperly released. Documents currently marked as confidential would either be lowered to unclassified status or bumped up to “secret.” Clapper said very few security clearances are at the confidential level, adding the reform would bring the government in line with its counterpart in the United Kingdom.

The DNI also said agencies should examine reducing the number of individuals with the authority to classify information, known as “original classification authority.” Clapper said his office reduced that number from 24 to 10 last year, which saved time without compromising the mission.

Intelligence agencies will also comment on the feasibility of allowing for more discretionary declassifications, rather than exclusively through the mandatory reviews already required. Clapper asked if that process would require additional funding. He also asked for input on whether it would be helpful to create a community-wide guide for classification.

Clapper requested the “personal involvement” of agency heads to implement his directives.

“I believe your efforts will serve as a significant step forward in furthering our shared goals for greater openness and reduced classification activity while protecting legitimate national security interests,” he said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, said in a blog post the intervention by Clapper was an unusual one.

“Ordinarily, the nuts and bolts of the classification system would be beneath the concern of senior agency officials,” Aftergood wrote. “But DNI Clapper’s intervention changes that presumption. In effect, the Clapper memo focuses attention on what would otherwise be a routine mid-level bureaucratic function and elevates it to a senior-level imperative.”

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