from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2008, Issue No. 88
September 10, 2008

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The House of Representatives yesterday passed the Overclassification Reduction Act, a bill that is intended to help reduce inappropriate classification of information in government.

The bill would require the National Archivist to develop regulations to help combat overclassification. The bill would mandate increased accountability for classification actions, with incentives for challenging improper classification and penalties for abuse of classification authority. Importantly, it would require agency inspectors general to perform periodic audits of classification activity to ensure compliance with classification standards.

While the bill represents a welcome expression of congressional interest in overclassification, its proposed solution does not seem carefully adapted to the problem.

"The problem of overclassification is government-wide and it demands a government-wide solution," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who introduced the bill along with Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA).

But that is unlikely to be true, because it presumes that overclassification is a uniform phenomenon across the government, which is not the case. Overclassification at the CIA is not the same as overclassification at the Pentagon or the State Department. Not only do these agencies have different institutional cultures, their classification policies revolve around different sets of security concerns, and they are implemented through distinct sets of procedures.

A government-wide regulation like the 2003 implementing directive issued by the Information Security Oversight Office can set important parameters for classification duration, classifier training, document marking, and so forth. But that directive has not been an effective vehicle for reversing or combating overclassification.

An alternate approach to the problem will be described in Secrecy News next week.


By almost every available measure, government secrecy continued to increase over the past year, according to report this week from, a broad coalition of consumer and open government groups.

The report describes the mostly unfavorable trends across a range of quantitative indicators, including classification and declassification activity, "black budget" spending, invention secrecy, Freedom of Information Act processing, and more.

"These trends indicate that citizens will have to wait even longer to find out what their government is doing," said Patrice McDermott, director of

The new report is the fifth in an annual series issued by the coalition. See the 2008 Secrecy Report Card from


The State Department Historian last week released a new electronic volume of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy, devoted to events in Eastern Europe from 1973-1976.

While every FRUS publication is of interest, the latest E-volume reinforced concerns about diminishing quality control in the venerable series.

"I was taken aback by how skimpy it is," said Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies.

In principle, the major advantage of a softcopy-only volume is that it permits publication of a greatly expanded collection of records, unlimited by the production constraints of a hardcopy volume. But that advantage has gone unrealized in the new FRUS volume.

"It contains a total of 105 documents, compared to 238 in the 1969-1972 volume. It includes no sections at all about Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, and even what's there is pretty meager," Mr. Kramer said.

"For example, the only item that really deals with the June 1976 protests in Radom, Poland is Document No. 57, a November 1976 CIA memorandum that's long been available from the CIA's very useful on-line reading room. The CIA memorandum focuses on the aftermath of the protests, rather than the protests themselves. Anyone hoping to know how U.S. officials in Warsaw or Washington, DC reacted to the crisis when it was actually occurring in June 1976 will have to look elsewhere. (I found a bunch of documents pertaining to this topic in the Ford presidential library, and I can't fathom why not a single one was included in the FRUS volume.)," he noted in an email message.

"If this volume is an indication of what the FRUS editors regard as a thorough treatment of the topic, I worry about where things are heading," Mr. Kramer said.

Though the Office of the Historian at the State Department is mad at me for saying so, there has been considerable upheaval and turmoil in that office over the last couple of years. Most recently, Dr. Edward C. Keefer, the respected general editor of FRUS, abruptly resigned.

It is unclear whether, how or when FRUS will be able to fulfill its mandatory obligation to produce "a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity" that is published "not more than 30 years after the events recorded."


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

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