A new paper touted classification efforts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

A new paper touted classification efforts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

This Agency’s Declassification Work Could Be a Model for Others

A new paper, based on consultations with government officials and others, looks at what the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has done in recent years.

How one intelligence agency was able to tackle its overclassification issue can be a model for the federal government, according to a new paper.

A key contributor to the government’s overclassification problem ––which is condemned by advocates, lawmakers and even some government officials for its negative impacts on transparency, national security and democracy–– is the several thousand classification guidebooks it has that are often vague and confusing, according to the nonprofit the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, which recently published an occasional paper on this. This often leads to the practice of “don’t declassify, just say no, then, overclassify, just to be ‘safe.’” However, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, both an intelligence and combat support agency that provides geospatial intelligence, was able to successfully consolidate and streamline, said the group. 

“Other national security agencies can replicate this success,” said the nonprofit in a post about the paper that was based on consultations with staff from the military, federal agencies and Congress as well as senior retired officials, outside government advisers, academics and other experts. “It is imperative they do so. Unless we reduce the number of subjective, vague, and contradictory classification and declassification guidebooks and original classification authorities dramatically, any hope of automating the review of the ever-expanding number of classified documents generated on a daily basis will be less than zero.” 

So, how did the geospatial agency get here?

About seven years ago the agency, which is a member of the Defense Department and intelligence community, realized that overclassification was getting in the way of executing its mission. Post Cold War, the agency was first established as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in October 1996 and then after a reorganization and name change from Congress, it became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2003 in wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

“The agency was taking way too long to get its images and information to soldiers on the battlefield and when they finally did get this material to them, it was either too late to be useful, or it was classified at too high a level for our soldiers to share it with their foreign compatriots who they needed to plan attacks with on the frontlines,” said the paper. In other cases, working with allied governments and private sector companies, overclassification was getting in the way, the working group found. Therefore, the agency took on a review to see what was getting in the way of serving its customers. 

Officials found during the review that the agency was using 65 different classification security guidebooks: many came over from the legacy agencies when it was created, most “were created to keep information from being released,” and in others the instructions were re “conflicting, vague, or subjective,” said the report. “[The geospatial agency’s] top brass immediately recognized that the classification guides, ostensibly created to protect our national security, were instead impairing it by making it nearly impossible for any [agency] official to properly classify or declassify any information or imagery.” 

Within five months, the agency consolidated the guides into a single one to rid any “contradictory, subjective, and vague rules” as well as institute “clear requirements to review any classification appeal within 30 days and to modify the [agency’s] security classification guidebook five or more times a year based on the outcome of these appeals.” 

The agency “takes pride in the work we’ve done to ensure classification is easily established at the appropriate level,” said Arthur Haubold, director of security and installations at the agency. “[The geospatial agency’s] modernized approach to security classification allows analysts to tailor product classification by intended audience. This supports the dynamic nature of operations and intelligence sharing, including the wide proliferation of open source intelligence available today.”

The nonprofit briefed the Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory committee to the president and other executive branch officials, about the paper last month. The board said in a post shared earlier this week that many of the findings in the paper align with a report it issued in 2020 and “broadly echoes” remarks from Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’ in January about the perils of over classification.