Holding the Government Accountable

Executive Office Reports that Classification Is Declining

New Classifications Graph

The Information Security Oversight Office, which reports directly to the White House on issues pertaining to national security programs and the classification system, released its Fiscal Year 2012 report showing that by some standards, the classification system is shrinking.

The report was released just fifteen days after the first disclosure of classified National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs. Such programs have brought the Obama Administration under fire and pushed a number of issues to the forefront of national debate, including the appropriate balance of security and privacy, and the appropriate number of government and contractor employees with top-secret clearance.

As one of the many measures of government secrecy, a certain shrinking within the classification system is surprising amid such debate. Overclassification has plagued the government for years; the 9/11 Commission found it to be one of the main reasons agencies were unable to prevent the attacks.

The ISOO report showed a large decrease in the number of original classifications, or the initial decision to classify new material, from FY 2011 to FY 2012. It was, in fact, the lowest total since 1996. There was also a slight decrease in the number of original classification authorities, which are officials able to classify new information.

Cost of Classification Graph

The cost of security-related classifications, another important figure, also decreased for the first time since 1995.

On the other hand, ISOO reports that from FY 2011 to FY 2012, the number of pages declassified by the federal government declined. The declassification process requires a review of the material, and 8 million fewer pages were reviewed in FY 2012 than in FY 2011. Pages reviewed and pages declassified were each at their lowest totals since 2004.

The number of derivative classifications—the reuse of classified material by those with appropriate clearance—reportedly increased to an all-time high in FY 2012. Since 1996, this number has increased from nearly 6 million to 95 million, in large part due to the inclusion of electronic records in metrics.

This stark increase is disconcerting, but that trend might be reversing itself soon: the increase in derivative classifications could be mitigated by the reduction in original classifications. This is because derivative classifications stem from original classifications, “creating new and possibly multiple forms of the information.” Once a high-ranking official initially classifies material, other officials with appropriate clearances use that classified material again, creating a branching out of the classified material. A reduction in original classifications will likely lead to a reduction in derivative classifications.

The ISOO report has led some to conclude that the “secrecy system itself is showing surprising new signs of restraint and even contraction.” While the Project On Government Oversight is pleasantly surprised by the vertical contraction of the classification system, concerns remain. The decreased total of pages reviewed for declassification is problematic, as is the horizontal ballooning effect derivative classifications are having. It will be interesting to see just how much effect the decrease in original classifications will have on derivative classifications.