from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 52
June 25, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:


The Obama Administration has instructed government agencies that classify national security information to review and update all of their classification guides -- which specify what information is classified and at what level -- and to gather input on classification policy from "the broadest possible range of perspectives," according to a new official directive.

"To the extent practicable, input should also be obtained from external subject matter experts and external users of the reviewing agency's classification guidance and decisions," wrote Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) director William J. Bosanko in the new directive.

The ISOO directive, to be published in the Federal Register on Monday June 28, informs government agencies how they are supposed to implement President Obama's December 2009 Executive Order 13526 on classification and declassification policy, which formally takes effect on June 27.

Among that executive order's several interesting features is what is called the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which requires a complete reexamination of all agency classification practices to validate their contents and to cancel obsolete secrecy requirements. This Review is the Obama Administration's primary response to the pervasive problem of overclassification.

The Fundamental Classification Guidance Review is "the most important effort to address this problem [of overclassification]," said William H. Leary of the National Security Council last January.

"[It] is a totally new requirement that agencies conduct fundamental reviews of their classification guides and other guidance to ensure that they eliminate outdated and unnecessary classification requirements. The first of these fundamental reviews has to be completed within two years, and agencies are required to make public the results so that people... can hold us responsible for the results," said Mr. Leary, who spoke at a January 20 program at American University's Collaboration on Government Secrecy. "These reviews can be extremely important in changing the habits and the practices of classifiers throughout government," he said.

Opening the classification reviews to "the broadest possible range of perspectives," as required by the new ISOO directive, has the potential to minimize the frivolous, self-serving or unnecessary use of classification authority. At least, that's the theory.


The financial costs of national security classification-related activities continued to rise in 2009, reaching a record high of $9.93 billion for the combined costs of protecting classified information in government and industry, the Information Security Oversight Office reported today.

Classification-related costs include not simply the act of classification, but also everything that follows from it: physical security for classified materials, computer security for classified information systems, personnel security, and so forth. "The agencies also reported a modest, but welcome increase in spending on declassification programs," wrote ISOO Director William J. Bosanko in his transmittal letter to the President.

The newly reported cost data do not include classification-related costs for CIA or the large Pentagon intelligence agencies -- since those costs are themselves considered to be classified. This means that the costs incurred by the most classification-intensive agencies are outside the scope of the published report, which significantly limits its value.

See "Report on Cost Estimates for Security Classification Activities for Fiscal Year 2009," Information Security Oversight Office, June 25, 2010:


One of the simplest and most effective ways to strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence agencies would be to task cleared staffers from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, to undertake specific audits or investigations of intelligence programs. Perhaps the clearest indication of the power of this approach is the fact that the intelligence agencies hate the idea and the White House has threatened a veto if it is adopted by congress.

Senate intelligence committee leaders have already yielded to executive branch opposition on this point, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is insisting that the GAO has a role to play in intelligence oversight, and she says she is trying to ensure that Congress does not willingly surrender one of its most sophisticated oversight tools. See "Pelosi Faces Off with Obama on CIA Oversight" by Massimo Calabresi, Time, June 25:

An unreleased opinion from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel reportedly holds that intelligence programs are outside the purview of the Government Accountability Office and that intelligence agencies should therefore not cooperate with the GAO.

Although the GAO previously reviewed FBI counterterrorism programs prior to the 2004 intelligence reform legislation, "GAO has been essentially blocked from conducting its current work," complained Sen. Charles Grassley (R-ID). "The DoJ Office of Legal Counsel is arguing that GAO does not have the authority to evaluate the majority of FBI counterterrorism positions, as these positions are scored through the National Intelligence Program (NIP) Budget."

The FBI confirmed that the GAO's access to some previously auditable programs has been denied. "With the post-2004 inclusion of FBI counterterrorism positions in the Intelligence Community, aspects of the review GAO proposed in 2009 would have constituted intelligence oversight," the FBI told Sen. Grassley. "It is the longstanding position of the Intelligence Community to decline to participate in GAO reviews that evaluate intelligence activities, programs, capabilities, and operational functions."

I recently discussed the question of GAO oversight of intelligence with colleagues from the Project on Government Oversight, which published the conversation as a podcast here:


The term "overclassification" is used in two distinct senses: The classification of information that should not be classified at all, and the classification of information at a higher level than is justified. Both are problematic, though in different ways. The second form of overclassification, which unnecessarily limits the sharing of information by cleared persons, is addressed in a new Senate Committee report on "The Reducing Over-Classification Act."

The latest volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series documents U.S. policy toward Vietnam during January to October 1972, including events surrounding the so-called Easter Offensive of the war in Vietnam. The 1100-page FRUS volume includes a large collection of transcripts of tapes from the Nixon White House.

The National Security Agency and the UK's GCHQ have both published declassified documents regarding the 1946 UKUSA Agreement on cooperation between the United States and Great Britain in signals intelligence.

On May 26, two days before his final day as Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair signed a new Intelligence Community Directive, ICD-705, on "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities" or SCIFs. It mostly says that all SCIFs must comply with technical security standards that are to be issued in the near future.

The Congressional Research Service has an opening for an analyst with expertise in one or more of the following areas: presidential powers, emergency powers, information policy, privacy, and/or transparency, among others.


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

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