The Public Interest Declassification Board has offered some excellent proposals to improve the broken security classification system. To reverse the disturbing trends of massive overclassification and decreasing openness, to put declassification activities on a firmer budgetary foundation, and to focus resources toward protecting true national security secrets, the National Security Archive proposes levying a classification tax, eliminating redundancies in the equity system, and adhering to “sunshine dates” when classifying and declassifying information.
Levying a Classification Tax.
The existence of the 400 million page backlog of classified historical documents at the National Archives reflects the failure of agency declassification programs, as well as the low priority that federal budget planners have given to declassification. The government spent more than $10 billion in fiscal year 2010 on classification security, but only an infinitesimal amount, $50 million (.5%) on declassification activities. Unless the National Declassification Center and other declassification programs have a dependable source of revenue, the ebbs and flows of federal funding could cause seriously harmful setbacks. Already, federal budget cuts are leading the military services to cut declassification activities. This may be only the beginning. As its first biannual report documents, the NDC requires more funding to increase its output and make better progress in tackling the hundreds of millions of pages of historic documents which remain classified. Sufficient funding would ensure that the future generations of archivists, historians, and policymakers have access to the historic documents of the United States.
To make certain that the National Archives and other federal agencies have a reliable source of funding for declassification, and to make the agencies more directly responsible for their classification decisions, we propose a “Classification Tax,” a designated percentage of what federal agencies spend on classification and information security each year. Congress could designate 2% of the total costs of the classification system for declassification. A 2% designation on classification would produce $200 million this year, a four-fold increase, sufficient to expand funding for the NDC and other programs. While the lion’s share of the revenue should go to the NDC, declassification funds could also be divided among the agencies in proportion to their share of the secrecy budget.
Eliminating Redundancies in the Equity System.
The agency “equity” system is a problem that has ground declassification processing to a halt. This system is based on the understanding that records produced by government agencies in the national security field often contain information from a variety of agencies. For example, a situation report on a war in country X may contain information from CIA, National Security Agency, defense attachés, and embassies. Under the current system, each of those agencies have an equity, close to an ownership stake, in that situation report and each of them must consent to the declassification of their information before the document can be declassified. Because such documents are subject to multiple agency reviews, the declassification process is prolonged, sometimes for years or decades, and the cost of the review is drastically increased.
Contrary to what some agencies argue, agency “ownership” of information is not absolute. The Interagency Classification Appeals Panel frequently overrules agencies and forces declassification of “their” information. Unfortunately, most documents do not go through the ISCAP review process, so it is necessary to conceive of a system where equity interests do not trump timely declassification and efficient use of resources. One of the proposals raised on the PIDB “Transforming Classification” website suggested centralizing declassification authority in the National Declassification Center for historical documentation held at NARA. By applying guidance approved by ISCAP, the Center could take into account all and any legitimate agency concerns about equities. The National Security Archive supports this proposal because, as one commentator suggested, it is likely to “improve efficiency in the system by minimizing or ending multiple reviews, which is critical to saving resources.”
Upgrading the NDC’s authority could do much good, but it would not end the interminable delays caused by equity issues that surface in archival FOIA and other declassification requests. Therefore, we propose an interagency referral center paralleling the NDC. It could begin as a prototype center, combining officials from State, OSD and ODNI, who could promptly consider FOIA documents where multiple equities are at issue.
Adhering to “Sunshine Dates.”
The best mechanism to fundamentally transform classification is already explained in the President’s Executive Order on Classification; unfortunately, it is not followed by declassification authorities.
Executive Order 13526 mandates that “At the time of original classification, the original classification authority shall establish a specific date or event for declassification based on the duration of the national security sensitivity of the information. Upon reaching the date or event, the information shall be automatically declassified.” The executive order exempts confidential human sources, confidential intelligence sources and key design concepts of weapons of mass destruction from automatic declassification.
Adhering to this “sunshine date” and then declassifying the vast bulk of classified information at the date specified, rather than requiring a line-by-line review by a declassifying authority, would substantially decrease the universe of classified information and the burden on the limited resource of security reviewers.
Of course, no transformational declassification policy will be without critics. Transparency advocates may argue that this “sunshine date” will encourage classification authorities to establish the maximum possible classification dates –which the current executive order defines at 25 years. While all efforts should be made to train classifying authorities to properly classify documents in relation to their sensitivity, automatic declassification of documents at 25 years is better for the American public than the status quo. Currently, hundreds of millions of pages of documents ripe for declassification, all older than twenty five years, remain mothballed in storage due to lack of resources.
Supporters of the existing system may argue that the danger posed to US national security outweighs adhering to the “sunshine dates” defined in Executive Order 13526, and that it is necessary to withhold hundreds of millions of pages of classified documents from the US public. Several measures can be implemented to assuage these concerns of damage to national security. Classifying authorities must be trained or re-trained to follow the Executive Order on classification and mark each newly classified document with an accurate automatic declassification date. They must also be certain to identify human sources, intelligence sources, and WMD designs that cannot be automatically declassified and must be reviewed by declassification experts. This will ensure that all future classified information not mentioning human sources, intelligence sources, or WMD design, can be declassified on the date specified by the classifying authority without undue harm to US national security. “Sunshine dates” will ensure that information security professionals can direct the bulk of their efforts toward protecting America’s real national security secrets, rather than decades-old historic records which should be expeditiously declassified.
The amount of classified information in America is growing at an exponential rate while the amount of resources available to declassify information remains flat. The current system of declassification has become untenable. We believe that levying a classification tax of 2% to ensure steady declassification funding, reforming the equity system to eliminate redundant human declassification reviews, and adhering to “sunshine dates” to automatically declassify the bulk of information in the classified universe, are the best solutions to transform classification, to focus on protecting true national security secrets, and to ensure the public’s access to its formerly classified history.
The creation of the National Declassification Center (NDC) by President Obama in December 2009 specifies the centralization and streamlining of all declassification processes with the objective of shortening the time to declassify a document. This enormous task mandates the use of the newest technology to assist with streamlining processes as well as creating consistent, more accurate processes. The Executive Order also specifies that declassification instructions accompany all document classifications. This leads the way to a major new form of support and automation for consistent declassification: by embedding or formally associating declassification information in the document at the time of creation and classification, a system can treat these documents as essentially self-declassifying, rather than requiring intensive manual labor to identify their suitability for declassification and redactions required for release.
When classification is first applied to a document or portion, the classification authority must determine the elements of content that cause the classification and the reason that this content must be classified. In addition, according to Executive Order 13526, the classification authority must establish a date or event for the declassification of the material, at the occurrence of which the material automatically becomes declassified. Making full practical use of this information requires a new approach to classification and declassification. Without this, the fact that the material becomes declassified as a matter of policy may have no direct effect in practice; a reviewer must still read the material, consider its original classification, determine the applicability of declassification, and apply the change. This creates essentially duplicate work, and it limits the value of identifying the declassification criteria at the time of the original classification. To take full advantage of the available declassification criteria therefore requires a new approach, with automation that follows the content through its classification life cycle.
We envision a system that enables document self-declassification while maintaining security safeguards and the extent of manual verification and additional review required by policy. The self-declassification (SDC) system should consist of a set of software and networked components to track and apply declassification instructions. Any person who creates a document, or edits one if allowed by policy, must enable the association of applicable classification information. The classification authority must specify not only the classification of each portion but also the conditions for declassification of any classified portion. The system should then aid declassification in two ways:
- Based on its own recognition, the system should identify when documents become releasable, or when certain document portions as no longer require redaction before release. For example, the system can recognize on its own that the date for declassification has arrived, and can automatically identify this document for declassification, either applying the automatic declassification directly or placing the document in a queue for any final review that a specialized policy may require. The system may also include a capability to track events that are entered by authorized individuals, in order to automatically apply event-driven declassification; this is likely to apply primarily to events that may affect the classification of large numbers of documents.
- The system should further present documents or redactions for potential release to a reviewer, with a specification of the conditions for release. This allows the reviewer to determine directly whether those conditions have been met, without requiring the reviewer to engage in a labor-intensive process of considering all content in the document for potential sensitivity. This approach is suitable for conditions the system cannot verify directly. Once the reviewer has identified that release criteria are met, the system should handle the document as above, thus relieving the reviewer of the requirement to read the entire document and re-apply the same reasoning that was applied when the document or portion was originally classified.
The SDC system should thus support classification awareness throughout the life cycle of a document.
- At creation and editing time, classification and declassification information should be associated with the document and its portions, systematically and securely, in a form designed for use with automated systems. Documents for which this information is complete and unchanging should be considered “closed” and unavailable for editing, a condition that the system should enforce.
- Declassification can be triggered either by automated recognition that the criteria are satisfied or by external system or human request.
- All declassification should be performed to the maximum extent possible by automated application of previously defined rules.
- All information about the classification decision and the rules applied in this decision should be made directly available to the individuals who perform any required manual review.
A self-declassification system as described will streamline the declassification process by allowing subject matter experts to make decisions about classification only once. By maintaining full classification and declassification information tightly linked to the document and its portions throughout the content life cycle, the system will take responsibility for maintaining a consistent application of the decision made by the original classifier. In essence, from the point of view of an information consumer or declassification reviewer, each document will perform its own declassification, subject only to the entry of information not directly available to the system and to any specialized manual review that is required for verification and policy.
A “fundamental transformation” of the classification system, as proposed by President Obama, is long overdue. Experts of all political stripes have agreed for decades that overclassification is rampant and that it carries unacceptable costs—to national security, to representative democracy, and to the public fisc. The extent and persistence of the problem underscore the need for change that is profound rather than incremental.
There are three aspects to transforming the classification system: (1) revisiting the rules that govern classification decisions; (2) ensuring compliance with the rules; and (3) improving the declassification process. The second aspect is the subject of an upcoming Brennan Center report and the main focus of this white paper, although we present suggestions in all three categories.
I. Revisiting the rules. Agency classification guides provide the substantive criteria for derivative classification decisions not based on source documents. There are several problems with the guides: they are outdated, and much of the information they identify no longer requires classification (if it ever did); they give derivative classifiers far too much discretion, in essence having them act as original classifiers; and many are opaque and unwieldy, to the point that classifiers have no idea how to use them. The President has ordered agencies to review and revise their guides. This effort is critical to the success of classification reform, yet early reports suggest that not all agencies have approached the undertaking in the right spirit. The President should make clear that this is a priority.
A second problem is that agencies have interpreted the National Security Act of 1947 to permit the classification of “intelligence sources and methods” regardless of whether disclosing the information would cause harm. This interpretation is a major source of needless classification. The President should ask Congress to amend the Act to specify that “intelligence sources and methods” may be classified only if their disclosure could reasonably be expected to damage national security.
II. Ensuring compliance with the rules. Currently, there are many powerful incentives to classify documents even when the national security implications are questionable. To name a few: There is a culture of secrecy among many agencies; information control provides a useful weapon in agency turf wars; employees who fail to protect information are subject to harsh sanctions; and there is tremendous pressure to err (and to err liberally) on the side of secrecy, given the perceived stakes. There are essentially no forces pushing in the other direction, as the process of classifying documents is quick and easy; those who needlessly classify documents are never held accountable; and there are no rewards for challenging improper classification decisions.
Whatever rules are adopted for classification, compliance with those rules will continue to be an elusive goal unless the underlying incentive structure is changed and accountability is introduced. To this end, our upcoming report will set forth a five-prong proposal, to be implemented as a pilot program (via executive order and implementing ISOO directive) at one or more agencies:
A. Electronic questionnaires. Classifiers would be required to enter answers to a series of drop-down questions when classifying a document; the answers would become part of the document’s metadata. In addition to providing basic information that already is required (e.g., personal identifier, date or event for declassification, etc.), original classifiers would be required to articulate why disclosure of the information could reasonably be expected to harm national security; derivative classifiers, when relying on a guide, would be required to explain how the information meets guide criteria. Classifiers operating under an urgent deadline could provisionally classify the information for a 10-day period without answering all the questions.
The purpose of the electronic questionnaire is fourfold: (1) requiring classifiers to articulate the justification for classification would help to ensure that such justification exists; (2) the process of completing the questionnaire, while minimally burdensome, might dissuade those whose only reason for classifying the document is “Why not?”; (3) the information provided would be used to facilitate the audits discussed below; and (4) the metadata could be used to help manage the information (for example, it would facilitate automatic declassification).
B. Audits of classifiers. For each agency participating in the pilot program, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) would be asked to conduct a periodic “spot audit” of original and derivative classifiers, reviewing a sample of classification decisions for each person audited. The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) would provide training and guidance to OIGs on how to conduct the audits. OIGs could use the questionnaire answers to assess whether a facially legitimate justification for classification existed. In those cases where OIGs had questions that they lacked the expertise to resolve, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) would serve in a consulting role.
C. Consequences for the classifier. Employees found to be overclassifying at high rates would be subject to repeat audits every six months. Agencies would put in place a series of mandatory escalating consequences for employees who failed to self-correct over time, beginning with remedial training and culminating in temporary or even permanent revocation of classification authority.
D. Consequences for the agency. Because sanctions at the individual classifier level will go only so far if the agency’s culture of secrecy persists, and because organizational culture is a top-down phenomenon, managers must be held accountable for the performance of the employees they supervise. If managers failed to instill proper classification practices among their employees (as evidenced by OIG audits), that failure would be reflected in their personnel evaluations and affect their eligibility for bonuses and other performance-related benefits.
Moreover, if successive OIG audits suggested a high rate of overclassification agency-wide, the agency would be required to develop a specific plan—and to allocate the necessary resources—to reduce that rate. ISOO would review the plan and could order revisions. Once approved by ISOO, the plan would be forwarded to the President. If the agency did not meet its goals in subsequent audits, it would be required to submit a report to ISOO explaining any shortcomings and detailing its plans for addressing them.
E. Rewards for challenges. Although Executive Order 13526 obligates authorized holders of information to challenge classification decisions that appear improper, they rarely do so. Employees at agencies participating in the proposed pilot project would be able to bring challenges anonymously, and those who succeeded would be given small cash awards under the law that permits cash prizes for “a special act or service in the public interest.” 5 U.S.C. §§ 4503-4504.
III. Improving declassification. Neither human nor computer effort is up to the task of reviewing the massive backlog of documents awaiting so-called “automatic” declassification. The only solution is for the President to put meaning behind the term “automatic” by declassifying the documents through executive order. (First, Congress must amend the “Kyl-Lott Amendment” so that page-by-page review is required only for documents that are likely to contain information about atomic weapons or nuclear material.) Although the information thus disclosed would be more than 25 years old, it is possible that some minute fraction of that information might still be sensitive. Allowing the continued, indefinite classification of hundreds of millions of records that are critical to understanding our nation’s history and identity is the greater evil.
The most successful elements of current declassification policy are Mandatory Declassification Review and ISCAP. They should be “scaled up.” Agencies currently spend only about 0.5% of their information security budgets on declassification; they should be required to increase that percentage to 5%. ISCAP’s influence should be amplified by giving its decisions precedential value, and consideration should be given to establishing multiple panels (turning “ISCAP” into “the ISCAP system”) in order to increase the volume of documents reviewed.
The Public Interest Declassification Board will host a Public Forum on Thursday, May 26, 2011 on Transforming the National Security Classification System. The meeting will focus on the Board’s eight draft White Papers on transforming classification, the White Papers submitted by the public for the Blog, and additional ideas you have on transforming the classification system. The Board looks forward to hearing your thoughts.
When: May 26, 2011 from 10am-12:30pm
Doors Open: 9:45am
Where: McGowan Theater in the National Archives Building
Address: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
(Please enter through the Constitution Avenue entrance.)
To facilitate access through the Special Events entrance, the PIDB asks that all attendees RSVP by e-mail and provide their full name and contact information.
The PIDB would like to hear from all interested parties. To help with scheduling, please e-mail the PIDB if you wish to speak so that they may plan accordingly. In the interest of time, please limit your comments to five minutes.
Now that you have had the opportunity to review and comment on the Board’s draft proposals for transforming the classification system, we would like to invite you to submit your own specific ideas. Submissions should:
- Provide transformative but plausible ideas and actionable implementation strategies
- Promote innovation and especially address the challenges of classified digital data
- Be between 800 and 1200 words
The deadline for submitting draft proposals is May 13, 2011. All submissions should be provided via email to email@example.com. The Board will review the submissions, group them by topic, and post them for public comment accordingly on May 18. We reserve the right not to post white papers which are off topic. Your submissions and the Board’s prior white papers will be discussed in a public forum on May 26, 2011 at the National Archives Building.
Classified information concerning the technical design and manufacture of atomic weapons and the production or use of special nuclear material in the production of energy is categorized as Restricted Data (RD) by the Department of Energy (DOE) under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) is a separate category of information (defined under 10 CFR 1045) concerning the military utilization of atomic weapons as jointly determined by DOE and the Department of Defense (DoD).
FRD includes broad categories related to military utilization, including storage locations, military planning information, stockpile numbers, negotiations with foreign nations concerning nuclear weapons, and testing information. Unlike information classified by Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” (the Order) or its predecessor orders, RD and FRD information remains classified indefinitely with no distinction between sensitive, current information and innocuous, historical information.
While there is high researcher interest in accessing historical FRD information, much of this information remains needlessly classified. Weapons systems are decommissioned, as are the military units who maintained them. War plans become obsolete and are changed to account for advances in weaponry and technology as well as altered to account for changes to current national security policy. Stockpile and storage locations change over time, and nuclear weapons information is disclosed to other nations as treaties are negotiated and signed. Despite its operational obsolescence, this historical information remains classified as FRD and is needlessly safeguarded in the same manner as our current active nuclear policies and plans. As a result, there are large gaps in the public’s understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in our national security history. Significant Cold War events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, have yet to be fully detailed as most records marked FRD remain locked in classified vaults.
For historians, national security policy scholars, and the public, access to this information is integral to understanding our national security history. Yet, a regular, systematic process to review FRD for declassification and public access does not exist. FRD has been declassified in a few isolated instances, but these decisions were usually ad hoc and inconsistent.
The public has no formal means of requesting the declassification review of FRD information. Unlike other categories of classified information, information marked as FRD is automatically excluded from all reviews for declassification under the Order, including 25-year automatic declassification reviews and Mandatory Declassification Review requests. Agencies are required to process and review records containing FRD under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the FRD information itself is pro forma exempted and not reviewed on its merits. On those rare occasions when DoD and DOE choose to consider specific FRD information for declassification, there is no mechanism to appeal an exemption/denial decision.
The Public Interest Declassification Board (the Board) recommends that the classification designation FRD be eliminated on all historical records that are 25 years old or older. These records should be reviewed for declassification in the same manner as all other classified national security information. Historical FRD information – stockpile numbers, storage locations, military planning information, basic testing and yield information, and non-technical nuclear information as it relates to the military utilization of nuclear weapons – would formally become classified national security information and reviewed for declassification according to the Order. Agencies could seek exemptions from the automatic declassification provisions of the Order from the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) and exempt this information accordingly. DOE could participate in ISCAP deliberations as a temporary representative when FRD information is discussed.
Historical FRD information that describes technical design information relating to the military utilization of nuclear weapons would be converted to the RD classification, in effect correcting erroneous FRD markings of the past. As part of this transition, DoD and DOE would need to create a declassification guide to provide clear and precise instructions on what should properly be classified as RD and what should be classified by the Order as national security information and what should be declassified. To ensure proper treatment of FRD, this guidance would be disseminated to all agencies that hold historical FRD information in their records.
 This is identical to an existing procedure used to provide representation for the CIA when their equities are being adjudicated by ISCAP.
The PIDB would like to invite you to post your comments on two new proposals for transforming the classification system. The new topics concern:
Paper 5: Stewardship of Our Classified History
Paper 6: Information Security and Access in the Electronic Environment
A forthcoming paper will address historical Formerly Restricted Data.
Additionally, be sure to mark your calendar for Thursday, May 26, 2011, when the Board will host a public meeting on these and prior topics.
The current records management system does not ensure those records of historical significance are identified in such a way as to promote their timely review for declassification and public release. With greater reliance on digital records to decide policies and conduct missions, there is a great danger that, unless changes are made, our nation will be unable to document these historical decisions for future generations.
Stewardship of our national security history requires a two-tiered approach: capturing historically significant records at their creation and prioritizing their review for declassification. Each agency leader should establish an agency-wide history program. These programs should instill a greater sense of history in records management by fully integrating agency historians with records managers.
Mission-essential employees should collaborate with agency historians to further define the events and activities of historical significance. Using a continuum approach to information management, records managers and archivists should partner with mission-essential employees and historians to identify file series that detail historically significant events and activities. This process should maintain the provenance and original order of the records to guarantee users and future researchers contextual accuracy. When the records in question are electronic, information technology staff should ensure that the records’ metadata reflect their significance so as to ease future retrieval efforts. The stewardship of national security history demands a strong focus on electronic records management, as future historians will rely increasingly on information to be managed appropriately in the digital environment.
Historians should use these records to compose both classified and unclassified histories. The Center for the Study of Intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency could serve as a model for this approach and act as a facilitator for the history programs of the Intelligence Community. Although individual military units have historians and conduct “lessons learned” exercises and draft after action reports, the Board believes it essential for the Department of Defense to also adopt this integral approach to agency history programs. The historically significant records used to compose these histories should be prioritized for declassification review as these records would be of greatest interest to the public and are most likely to be subject to Freedom of Information Act or Mandatory Declassification Review requests. These early releases will increase public access while reducing the volume of potential requests. Communication between agency historians, records managers, archivists, and declassification reviewers is essential to fostering this holistic approach to records management, which the electronic environment and the information age necessitate.
Improved stewardship of the national security history of our Government would significantly enhance both Government operations and public access and knowledge. Timely access to the documentary record benefits policymakers who can reflect on past agency decisions when developing new policies. Effective records management practices will strengthen their ability to readily retrieve agency history and prevent the loss of historically significant records. Changes to contemporary information management practices would ensure that records of greatest historical significance are automatically identified at their creation, made accessible to users through metadata and enhanced records management, and prioritized for timely declassification review and public release.
Effective records management programs are essential, both to the information retrieval capability of policymakers and to the stewardship of agency history. The resources agency leaders invest in joint history and records management programs can earn real-time payoffs. Just as after-action reports improve future military operations, authored histories can provide immediate assistance by lending historical context to contemporary policymaking. Policymakers should use these histories of prior decisions and lessons learned to inform contemporary policy initiatives and train new staff. The impact of these studies depends largely on the timeliness and comprehensiveness of the historical record available. Agencies should recognize that history and records management are vital to their missions. Agency histories will remind agency personnel of the historical significance of their work, and unclassified versions will increase transparency by providing the public a view into agencies’ contemporary actions
By adopting a comprehensive records management program, agencies will be better positioned to address the challenges of the e-records environment and provide the public with the most sought-after materials. With the massive growth in electronic records, future historians are likely to be buried in data as they attempt to find important records. Employing a continuum model with accompanying metadata tagging will preposition records for easier retrieval by agencies and the public. Moreover, prioritizing historically significant records at the onset will reduce the eventual request burden on researchers, the NDC, and agency declassification offices. Most importantly, improved records management will enable agencies to automatically declassify records without review, as was the original intent of the automatic declassification program.
Individuals generating or working with classified information are required to obey established procedures for accessing, annotating, handling, and safeguarding that information. The system is managed much as it was before the advent of digital communication. Protocols governing these transactions were developed at the beginning of the Cold War and reflect the paper-based world in which they were created.
The electronic environment has radically changed how classified information is created and transmitted. Secure networks make it possible to exchange information readily between agencies. Innovations have revolutionized information sharing among agencies, but these advances have also made the system more susceptible to unauthorized disclosures, as the Wikileaks incidents have demonstrated.
While technology has transformed the way classified information is generated and transmitted, the classification system itself largely operates as it always has. Many of the policies currently in place for managing classified information represent 20th century approaches to 21st century problems. For example, current policy requires visible classification markings on records created digitally or made available online but makes no provision for the standardized electronic tagging of this information.
In this digital age, classification and access provisions must be as understandable by a computer system as they are by a human. Yet, today’s methods for managing and monitoring access to classified materials do not acknowledge this reality. Clearances remain agency-centric, burdensome to renew, and cumbersome to transfer between agencies. Conversely, an individual’s access to a classified network is based on ill-defined determinations of “need-to-know” and granted on a mostly system-wide basis. For both clearance and access, the antiquated design does not reflect an individual user’s needs and purposes. Accessibility is complex when it needs to be simple and simple when it needs to be complex. In recent years, the evolution of the Government’s internal business practices has exacerbated these issues and highlighted the need for reform.
Changing the System
Advances in the electronic environment have increased demands on the classification system, and new technology also offers the means to improve the methods by which classified information is managed. Coupled with reforms to the clearance process, adopting new methods for curating digital information records could significantly improve classification management.
As we have previously detailed, metadata can describe and label electronic records so that they are easier to retrieve, analyze, manage, and process. The benefits of comprehensive metadata standards are not limited to records management, but also offer the opportunity to enhance information security by providing sophisticated means to tailor and audit access.
Metadata for information stored on classified networks can limit access only for those with appropriate credentials. Credentials can be changed to include or exclude individuals as policies and sensitivities change. This approach can ensure all authorized users access to basic categories of information while compartmenting access to more sensitive items, not requiring an entirely separate network for highly sensitive information. For new records derived from multiple sources, the classification and disclosure policies of the source information can transfer to the new record through underlying metadata and prevent unauthorized access. The automated imprinting of e-records with background information in their metadata would act as a digital bibliography or provenance to aid eventual declassification review.
Metadata can also be used to monitor and audit activity on classified networks. Records can be imprinted with transactional metadata showing their access history. By tracking patterns of use, security managers will be able to use metadata to identify insider threats, in the same way the credit card industry detects fraud. Capturing a record’s modification history will aid future researchers, who will be able to see how national security policymakers used the information in their analyses and deliberations.
The adoption of this credential-oriented approach would eliminate some of the shortcomings of the existing clearance process. Under this new system, when individuals receive their initial security clearances, they would be assigned unique, permanent identifiers, akin to Social Security numbers. These identifiers would be granted and maintained by a single government entity. Once a cleared individual begins work, her identifiers would be assigned access credentials based on her specific responsibilities and work environment. When a user accesses or modifies classified records, his identifiers would be automatically appended to that record’s metadata. Clearance identifiers would follow an individual’s transfers to another office or agency, receipt of new government contracts, or transition back into federal service after working elsewhere, and agencies would grant them new accesses as appropriate. By eliminating the need for entirely new security investigations at every juncture, this process would save resources, increase efficiency, centralize the clearance process, and improve national security.
Implementing These and Other Changes
Various questions regarding these and other changes to the classification system would need to be addressed:
- Would proposed changes to the system be improved if accompanied by changes to the number of classification levels?
- Would proposed changes to the system be improved if definitions of secrecy and risk were redefined? If so, what should those new definitions be?
- What entity or entities would manage a streamlined classified network? A unified clearance system?
- How should oversight of the classification system change to match the realities of the electronic environment?
- Should a metadata registry be maintained? How might its requirements be enforced and by whom?
- Should classification decisions be monitored and audited for compliance and consistency at the onset by an enforcement entity?
The PIDB looks forward to hearing your comments on the following new papers:
Paper 3: Regularizing the Declassification Review of Classified Congressional Records
- Systematize and prioritize the declassification review of Legislative records at the NDC
Paper 4: Discretionary Declassification and Release of Contemporary National Security Information
- Encourage policymakers to consider the advantages of not classifying certain categories of information or declassifying before prescribed deadlines
Paper 5: Simplifying the Declassification Review Process for Historical Records
- Transfer agency declassification authority to the National Declassification Center (NDC) after declassification exemption timelines have lapsed