from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2010, Issue No. 60
July 28, 2010

Secrecy News Blog:


The release of some 90,000 classified records on the Afghanistan War by Wikileaks is the largest single unauthorized disclosure of currently classified records that has ever taken place, and it naturally raises many questions about information security, the politics of disclosure, and the possible impact on the future conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

But among those questions is this: Can the national security classification system be fixed before it breaks down altogether in a frenzy of uncontrolled leaks, renewed barriers against information dissemination, and a growing loss of confidence in the integrity of the system?

That the classification system needs fixing is beyond any doubt.

"I agree with you, sir," Gen. James R. Clapper, Jr., told Sen. Ron Wyden at his DNI confirmation hearing last week, "we do overclassify."

That makes it more or less unanimous. What has always been less clear is just what to do about the problem.

In what may be the last opportunity to systematically correct classification policy and to place it on a sound footing, the Obama Administration has ordered all classifying agencies to perform a Fundamental Classification Guidance Review. The purpose of the Review is to evaluate current classification policies based on "the broadest possible range of perspectives" and to eliminate obsolete or unnecessary classification requirements. Executive Order 13526, section 1.9 directed that such reviews must be completed within the next two years.

"There is an executive order that we, the [intelligence] community, are in the process of gearing up on how to respond to this, because this is going to be a more systematized process, and a lot more discipline to it," Gen. Clapper said.

"Having been involved in this, I will tell you my general philosophy is that we can be a lot more liberal, I think, about declassifying, and we should be," Gen. Clapper said.

It is unclear at this point whether the Fundamental Review will be faithfully implemented by executive branch agencies, whether it will have the intended effect of sharply reducing the scope of the national security classification system, or whether the system itself is already beyond repair.


There are probably many reasons why people may become motivated to break ranks, to violate their non-disclosure agreements, and to disclose classified information to unauthorized persons. One of the most compelling reasons for doing so is to expose perceived wrongdoing, i.e. to "blow the whistle."

It obviously follows that the government has an interest in providing safe, secure and meaningful channels for government employees (and contractors) to report misconduct without feeling that they need to go outside the system to get a fair hearing for their concerns. Unfortunately, would-be whistleblowers today cannot have much confidence in those official channels.

To the contrary, "most employees who reported disclosing wrongdoing or filing a grievance believe that they experienced negative repercussions for doing so," according to a recent report to the President from the Merit Systems Protection Board. See "Prohibited Personnel Practices—A Study Retrospective," June 2010 (at page 16):

"Morale, organizational performance, and (ultimately) the public suffer unnecessarily when employees are reluctant to disclose wrongdoing or to seek redress for inequities in the workplace," said the MSPB report, which did not specifically address whistleblowing involving classified information.

"Work remains to be done in creating a workplace where employees can raise concerns about organizational priorities, work processes, and personnel policies and decisions without fear of retaliation, and where managers can respond to such concerns openly and constructively," the Board report said.

See, relatedly, "Whistleblowers have nowhere to turn to challenge retaliatory suspensions" by Mike McGraw, the Kansas City Star, July 24:


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

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