Creation of New Secrets Drops in 2016 — But is All the News Good?

Appreciation to Steven Aftergood for his July 20 Secrecy News blog on the Annual Report to the President of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).  Steve is the indispensable source for cogent analysis of national security (and other) information and this post draws on that.

The Good News
Designation of New Secrets at Record Low: The ISOO reports that, in 2016, 39,240 “original classification decisions” (new secrets) were generated.  As Aftergood notes, this is an all-time low: by comparison, more than 230,000 new secrets a year were being generated a decade ago. And, indeed, from1980 – when this record-keeping began — to 2012, the total number never dropped below 100,000.  Even given the caveats below, the record low level is likely to reflect a real reduction in the scope of national security secrecy in the Obama years.

Caveats: And, yet, Aftergood notes “the reported reduction in new secrets cannot bear too much interpretive weight. The figures cited by ISOO represent a compilation of dozens of estimates provided by individual agencies, based on sampling methods that are inconsistent and not always reliable.”  Still, one can assume “that the uncertainties and the ambiguities in the data have been more or less constant over time.”

Critically, “this statistical approach to secrecy oversight implies that all classification decisions are of equal significance. In actuality, some secrets may be of profound importance — politically, morally, historically, or otherwise — while many other secrets (such as administrative or technical details) will have little or no public policy interest.”

Classification Challenges: Decisions to classify information often involve subjective judgments about the requirements of national security and the potential of particular information to cause damage, leading to disputes inside the government. Authorized holders of classified information who believe that the information is improperly classified, can file classification challenges within the system. As Aftergood points out, “If such challenges could be promoted and accepted as a routine element of classification practice, they could serve to invigorate classification oversight and to provide an useful internal self-check.”

ISOO reports 954 such classification challenges in 2016 — about the same number as in 2015. Of these challenges, 684 (71.70 percent) were fully affirmed at their current classification status with 167 (17.50 percent) being overturned either in whole or in part, and 103 (10.80 percent) challenges remaining open. Aftergood notes that this compares to over 40% that were overturned in 2015.

According to ISOO, the Department of Defense (DoD) historically reports the largest number of formal classification challenges, the majority of which (496) come from the U.S. Pacific Command. Only a single one emerged from the Department of Justice

Caveats: ISOO found that about a quarter of all agencies do not even have a classification challenge program, though they are supposed to.

The Bad News

Derivative Classification Increase and Data Accuracy Questionable:  Executive branch agencies reported 55,206,368 derivative classification decisions; a 5 percent increase from FY 2015. ISOO notes, not for the first time, that the data concerning derivative classification continues to be problematic for agencies to capture and ISOO to analyze accurately. Agencies estimate the number of these decisions based on established sampling methods.

Classification Costs at a Record High

According to ISOO, the annual costs incurred by the classification system reached record high levels in 2016: “The total security classification cost estimate within Government for FY 2016 is $16.89 billion,” ISOO reported, compared to $16.17 billion the year before. Classification-related costs within industry were an additional $1.27 billion.”

The Mixed News

ISOO director Mark A. Bradley, whose tenure as director began this year, told the President that in the next reporting cycle, “ISOO will focus on improving our methodology in data collection and will begin planning and developing new measures for future reporting that more accurately reflect the activities of agencies managing classified and sensitive information.” Regrettably, this is a commitment also made previously in a better budget (and possibly political) climate: on May 23rd, the Administration released a Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2018 that would cut funding for the National Archives and Records Administration by $16.6 million.

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