from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2004, Issue No. 111
December 14, 2004


The present system of classifying national security information "is unnatural, far from optimal, and... ought to be radically changed," according to a startling new report prepared for the Department of Defense by the secretive JASON scientific advisory panel.

The JASON report presents a penetrating theoretical critique of classification policy from the military point of view, and proposes an alternate new construct.

The flaws in the current classification system are so great that some military users are opting out of the system altogether, according to the JASON report.

"Users are dissatisfied with the present system [and] are electing to avoid entering the system entirely. For example, Predator [unmanned aerial vehicle] imagery in Iraq is considered Unclassified, but is protected by an ad hoc system of operational practices."

"Underclassification of documents -- often quietly justified as necessary for ease in transporting documents between meeting sites -- is a well known practice."

At the same time, "the status of sensitive information outside of the present classification system is murkier than ever... 'Sensitive but unclassified' data is increasingly defined by the eye of the beholder."

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by Secrecy News.

What is most interesting about the report is that it goes beyond critique to present the outlines of an alternate, idealized information security policy.

Among the first steps, the authors say, is to define an acceptable level of risk.

"As a nation we can afford to lose X secret and Y top secret documents per year. We can afford a Z probability that a particular technical capability or HUMINT source is compromised."

Clearly, X, Y, and Z must be more than zero. Otherwise, "all operations stop, because all operations entail some nonzero risk."

The next step is to *increase* information distribution "all the way up to the acceptable risk level."

"We have been living with systems that try to minimize risk," the JASONs note. "That is the wrong metric! We actually want to maximize information flow," subject to the maximum acceptable risk.

"Instead of minimizing risk, we actually want to ensure that it is increased to its tolerable maximum (but no higher)."

The JASON authors then describe a notional information security system that embodies this and other related principles.

The report does not consider the ways in which the existing classification system serves the political and bureaucratic interests of government agencies. Nor does it include an analysis of the obstacles to change that would have to be overcome to permit adoption of a new, risk-based system.

But the bottom line remains the same: "The present system of classification, clearances, and access protection is broken."

A copy of the December 2004 JASON report, which is far more interesting than its title -- "Horizontal Integration: Broader Access Models for Realizing Information Dominance" -- is available here (60 pages, 300 KB PDF file):

A selection of other JASON reports, which are not normally made public even when unclassified, may be found here:


The unidentified intelligence program that aroused the public opposition of several Senators last week because of its high cost and questionable utility illustrates the inadequacy of closed-door oversight of intelligence and its apparent susceptibility to advocacy from corporate interests.

The secret program was pegged as a low-observable stealth satellite reconnaissance program by John Pike of The projected program cost has nearly doubled to $9.5 billion, Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported on December 11, probably making it the largest single item in the U.S. intelligence budget.

The whole episode "point[s] to a weakness in the whole [intelligence oversight] process," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News This Week December 12.

"It takes a leak to understand that billions of taxpayers' dollars are being wasted that could be spent to make America safer," he said.

"Do you think the public has a right to know more about this program if it's so expensive?" Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

"I do," she replied. "Obviously we have to protect national security, but I think there are ways to have a debate."

"And one reason that I wanted the overall intelligence budget declassified, that top number, is I think it would help foster more public scrutiny and debate," said Sen. Collins, "and I think that's been one of the problems."

"It's something I'm going to pursue in the future," she said regarding budget declassification.


A new report from the Congressional Research Service "provides background data on United States arms sales agreements with and deliveries to its major purchasers during calendar years 1996-2003."

See "U.S. Arms Sales: Agreements with and Deliveries to Major Clients, 1996-2003," December 8, 2004:

Another new CRS report examines cooperation between the U.S. and China on counter-terrorism policy and its impact on bilateral relations between the two countries.

See "U.S.-China Counter-Terrorism Cooperation: Issues for U.S. Policy," December 7, 2004:


The 1981 attack by Israel on Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor complex has become an archetype of "counterproliferation," the use of force to prevent or reverse the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

The Osiraq attack is reviewed in a recent Masters thesis based on interviews with Israeli officials and a study of some more or less unfamiliar source documents.

The author concludes generally that the attack did indeed slow down the Iraqi WMD program, but that it had other less favorable unintended consequences, had no deterrent effect, and is unlikely to serve as a useful model for similar actions in the future.

See "Israel's Attack on Osiraq: A Model for Future Preventive Strikes?" by Peter Scott Ford, Naval Postgraduate School Masters Thesis, September 2004:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

To SUBSCRIBE to Secrecy News, send an email message to with "subscribe" (without quotes) in the body of the message.

To UNSUBSCRIBE, send a blank email message to

OR email your request to

Secrecy News is archived at:

Secrecy News has an RSS feed at: