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Document Friday: The FY 2010 ISOO Classification Report to the President. Some Bad News and Some Good News.

June 3, 2011

The annual Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) Report to the President is probably the best tool we have to analyze the classification system in the United States.  Here are some of my quick reactions to the report, which was released in April 2011.

  • When it comes to classification, the majority of agencies don’t listen to the president.  President Obama set a December 2010 deadline for agencies to issue regulations to implement his (generally pretty good) Executive Order on Classification.  The Report states that only 19 of 41 agencies have complied with the president’s request suggestion idea favor ORDER.  What should the Leader of the Free World do when the US agencies he controls do not comply with his executive ORDER?  One participant at a recent Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) meeting suggested firing the heads of the non-compliant agencies.  At any rate, “ISOO sees this as the biggest impediment to implementing the reforms called for by the President and as a real threat to the efficient and effective implementation of the overall classification system.”  The Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Justice are among the agencies who have ignored the president’s Executive Order on Classification.
  • The report attempts to put a very positive spin on the fact that the use of the “Ten-Years-or-Less” classification category is at an all time high.  Seventy-four percent of documents are classified as “Ten-Years-or-Less.”  The problem is that this designation is completely arbitrary.  Even though the

    Doesn't really do much good when the dox aren't actually declassified when they're supposed to be...

    documents are marked as such, they will not be declassified after ten years.  Researchers and requesters will still be required to use sloth-like MDR or FOIA mechanisms to wrest the documents into the public domain.  The paper Dr. Bill Burr and I presented to the PIDB highlighted this problem; we recommended making declassification automatic when documents hit their “declassify on” or “sunshine” date.

  • People who have security clearances have the right to challenge what they view as incorrect classification decisions.  The problem is that most clearance-holders don’t know they have this right.  Furthermore, only sixteen percent of challenges are overturned.  There were 722 formal challenges in FY 2010.
  • The CIA is by far the worst declassifier in the US government.    The Agency declassified less than eleven percent of documents that were 25 years old or older.  The second worst ratio is USAID (sixteen percent), which means that USAID either cares as little about transparency as the CIA, or was a front for lots of CIA ops.  Or both. 
  • The number of pages declassified in FY2010 is tiny compared to the number declassified during the Clinton –or even Reagan– administration.

    Not a good trend.

  • The Navy, Air Force, and (surprise, surprise) CIA performed the worst in ISOO’s declassification assessment.
  • A quarter of all security classification guides have not been updated within five years.  (612 out of 2,475 have not been updated.)
  • Although the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) backlogs are getting worse, MDR remains a more productive means of getting classified information released than does FOIA (there is no comparable government-wide FOIA report).  Between FY 1996 and FY 2010, 92 percent of MDR requests have led to some or all information being released.

    Good numbers.

  • The same goes for MDR appeals.  Out of the eight percent of MDR requests denied in full, eighty-two percent of appeals resulted in the additional release of information.

    Even more good numbers.

  • The third (and usually final) stop on the appeal line, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, has released additional information in sixty-five percent of the documents it has reviewed between 1996 and 2010.

    I like my chances.

  • Finally, ISOO identified the Office of the Secretary of Defense, National Archives (ironically), and the CIA (unsurprisingly) as the agencies primarily responsible for the growing backlog of MDR requests.  ISOO has instructed the agencies to “develop a plan to resolve the backlog and report quarterly on their progress.”  Any bets on if the agencies will comply?
  1. Mike Lemov permalink
    June 18, 2011 12:52 pm

    How many documents are estimated to be classified now vs. last 10 years, since 9/11? How many are declassified annuallly vs. past ten years (your estimate)?
    Is the number of classified docs growing since 9/11?
    Mike Lemov
    ( author of “John Moss: People’s Warrior”).


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