Document classification system under review

In the government, it\'s said that nothing has more endurance, or lasts longer than a document stamped \"top secret\". A presidential advisory panel tasked with...

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

There are times when the work of government doesn’t make much sense, at least to the average citizen.

A Presidential panel is wrestling to develop a simpler, more common-sense approach to government documents, and protecting the nation’s sensitive information. And the outcome will determine how agencies all across the federal government deal with the classification of sensitive material.

The world of government document declassification is full of many euphemisms and phrases that constitute and define how the government protects sensitive information. Everything from the familiar “top secret”, to “classified”. And then there are the three-word categories, such as “controlled unclassified information”, and “sensitive but unclassified.”

Last week, the Public Interest Declassification Board, a Presidential panel that provides guidance to the White House on the declassification of sensitive information and documents, met in public session at the Capitol Visitors Center. The board, which is based at the National Archives, tackled the document category of “Formerly Restricted Data”.

This category — and its mirror twin, “Restricted Data” — deals mainly with information related to the Atomic Energy Act, and the government agencies that deal with both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons – the Department of Energy and the Pentagon.

In this case, “Formerly Restricted Data”, or FRD, often deals with design specifications for weapons or energy systems that in some cases, were shared by both DOE and DOD because the scientific principles for a bomb and a nuclear reactor are in some cases, the same. At one point, one or the other of the agencies determines that for their purposes, the information no longer needs to be “restricted”, but by law, both must agree to any change in classification.

And that’s the rub, according to Doctor Andrew Weston-Dawkes, Director of the Office of Classification with the Department of Energy.

We have FRD because, in order to segregate it from other NSI (National Security Information). Why? Because we have a requirement in law to have cooperation under the act to share it. That’s what Congress did. That was not the intent of the (Nuclear Regulatory) Commission way back when, and because of that, that has sort of a cause and effect.

At the other end of the spectrum from Doctor Weston-Dawkes is Steven Aftergood, Senior Research Analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. He directs FAS’s Project on Government Secrecy, and is one of the more prominent and vocal members of the declassification community here in Washington, focusing on reducing the scope of official secrecy. He went to the PIDB meeting last week to make his case for eliminating the “Formerly Restricted Data” classification.

“Most of our classification system,” he testified before the PIDB, “is composed of structures that were created in the cold war. And that do not make a lot of sense today. They don’t correspond to the realities of the way that information is generated, the way that it is shared, the kinds of threats to national security that we face. And the question is, can we get past these inherited secrecy structures and can we devise an information security system that is simple, straightforward, easy to understand, apply, and that is responsive to the public interest, both in secrecy and in robust disclosure?”

The twisted, sometimes confusing nature of the testimony on declassification of FRD documents underscores the complexity and the difficulty of the bigger picture here for the PIDB: the goal, set by President Obama in an executive order, of mapping out a new, more streamlined classification and declassification system for sensitive government documents.

Stay tuned.


Related story: Federal News Radio: NARA declassification chief tackles backlog

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