The office is part of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The office is part of the National Archives and Records Administration. bbourdages / Getty Images

Empowering a Small Federal Office Could Help Reform the Records Classification System

The office within the National Archives and Records Administration has seen a decline in resources over the years that its former director would like reversed.

Empowering a small and relatively unknown office is critical to reforming the federal government’s records classification system, according to a 35-year government veteran who led the office.

A key element of modernizing the classification system “is strengthening [the Information Security Oversight Office] position to meet the challenge of significant reform,” said John Fitzpatrick, former director of the office, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing last Thursday. The hearing looked at how to modernize the classification system and curb the costly proliferation of classified records that has resulted from new technology and a national security culture that defers to secrecy. 

“Specifically, deliberate efforts are required to increase [the Information Security Oversight Office’s] prominence within and among the national security departments and agencies, specifically through greater utilization by the [National Security Council] and [Office of Management and Budget] and preferably [a] presidential designee,” to lead the governmentwide modernization of the classification system, said Fitzpatrick, who retired from the government in 2019 and served as director of the office from August 2011 to January 2016. He also served in senior roles, across multiple administrations, at the CIA, National Reconnaissance Office, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.

The information security office–established in 1978 and housed within the National Archives and Records Administration–needs more resources, which “have dwindled over time, and a reform effort such as this would include rightsizing and empowering [the office] to ensure it is able to meet its mission,” Fitzpatrick testified. That mission entails avoiding overclassification, and standardizing how classified and controlled unclassified information is managed. 

Also, it's vital for office personnel to conduct site visits at agencies in order to better oversee their classification systems, but “the staffing levels of [the office] have been reduced to a point where it cannot do that effectively,”  Fitzpatrick said.

In the early 1980s, shortly after it was established, the office had 15 employees (this was when it was part of the General Services Administration), according to data from NARA. It was moved to the Office of Management and Budget in 1994 and then became part of NARA in 1995 and had 10 staff at the time. 

In 2003, it had 20 staff on board and was authorized for up to 30 staff; in 2013 it had 28 staff and was authorized for up to 30 staff. As of today, it has 17 staff onboard and is authorized for up to 25, according to the agency’s data. 

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University, and Lauren Harper, public policy director for the archive, wrote in their prepared statement that the office “has a shrinking budget that is a shame and a sin.” 

The office “is a tiny band of hardy security inspectors who know the innards of the secrecy system, used to collect and publish the most helpful data on the classification problem, have honchoed massive declassification projects, and could make a real difference, with Congress’s support and tasking,” they wrote. “Doubling this office’s budget is another tiny investment ($5-$10 million) with huge payoffs.” 

In addition to the Information Security Oversight Office, there is also the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, National Declassification Center and Public Interest Declassification Board, which all play a role in the declassification process and oversight of that system. 

Mark Bradley, director of the office, also serves as the executive secretary of the declassification board, as required by statute. He wrote in the office’s annual report published in July that this second role requires the office to “divert significant levels of attention and resources away” from its core oversight responsibilities regarding classified national security information and controlled unclassified information. 

“With Congress increasingly turning to the [board] as a preferred vehicle for conducting declassification reviews without any additional funding, the administrative and cost burdens on us have increased significantly over the last several years,” he said. “I assess that my office cannot effectively continue to support the [board] under the current statutory structure without substantially more resources.”