from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2008, Issue No. 107
November 3, 2008

Secrecy News Blog:

Support Secrecy News:


The national security classification system at the Department of Homeland Security is "broken," and one of the top ten challenges facing the next Secretary of Homeland Security is to fix it, according to a recent report from the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

"The federal security clearance process and classification system is broken and is a barrier (and often an excuse) for not sharing pertinent information with homeland security partners," the report stated. "The next Secretary should direct a concerted effort to resolve these clearance and classification issues."

See "Top Ten Challenges Facing the Next Secretary of Homeland Security," Homeland Security Advisory Council, September 11, 2008 (Key Challenge 3, at page 8):

The Homeland Security Advisory Council is chaired by William H. Webster, the former Director of Central Intelligence and FBI Director. The Vice Chair is James R. Schlesinger, the former Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Defense.

Not everyone shares the Council's dismal view of DHS classification and clearance policy.

"We try to write at the lowest classification level possible," said Charles E. Allen, the DHS Under Secretary for Intelligence Analysis at a February 26, 2008 hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee. "It is amazing what we can get down to 'official use'," he said. "I am rather amazed at what we have out there on a day-to-day basis."

As for security clearances, Mr. Allen said, "I am quite a tiger at pushing clearances and getting people cleared."

But others concur with the Council assessment.

"On the classification issue, there is just no question that the system is broken, fundamentally broken," said Stephen E. Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations at a May 15, 2008 hearing. "The clearance process is completely overwhelmed. Because things get routinely overclassified, they can't get to the people who need it."

Unfortunately, the new Homeland Security Advisory Council report is not a significant addition to the literature on classification reform because it does not articulate a clear diagnosis, and it does not offer a specific prescription. "Fix the security clearance and classification process" is not in itself actionable advice.

One practical proposal for advancing classification reform in the next Administration was discussed in "Overcoming Overclassification," Secrecy News, September 16, 2008:


When an Army aircraft is flying in a zone where detonation of a nuclear weapon is anticipated, one of the pilots would be well advised to wear a patch over one eye to protect against flash blindness from the nuclear burst.

"This practice allows vision in this eye in case blindness occurs to the unprotected eye and the other pilot."

That peculiar bit of practical wisdom is provided in a 2007 U.S. Army manual for special operations forces that are operating in nuclear and other WMD environments.

"The United States Special Operations Command combatant commander recognizes the probability of operating in a CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] environment exists; therefore, SOF [special operations forces] must specifically organize, train, and equip to be successful," the manual explains.

"The term CBRN environment includes the deliberate, accidental employment, or threat of CBRN weapons and attacks with CBRN or toxic industrial materials (TIMs)."

A copy of the Army manual was obtained by Secrecy News.

See "Army Special Operations Forces Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Operations," Field Manual 3-05.132, August 2007.


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

The Secrecy News blog is at:

To SUBSCRIBE to Secrecy News, go to:


OR email your request to

Secrecy News is archived at:

SUPPORT Secrecy News with a donation here: