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Bernice Moore

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from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy

Volume 2010, Issue No. 75

September 22, 2010

Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/



The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has issued a new solicitation to industry and academia in an attempt "to discover new technologies to support declassification." Researchers are invited (pdf) to submit ideas for innovative approaches to declassification that will support the National Declassification Center in achieving its goals.

Can technology actually make a difference in declassification? It seems clear that it can, at least within certain limits.

One thing that technology cannot do is to render a decision about exactly what should be classified or declassified. That is a policy question which is dependent on a complex, rapidly changing factual environment (e.g. what related information is already available in the public domain) as well as a largely subjective threat assessment (e.g. what damage might conceivably result from disclosure and what benefits might ensue). Such a decision does not easily lend itself to a technological formula.

Besides that, the executive order that governs the national security classification system is permissive, not mandatory; it allows the classification of eligible information, but does not require it. So any algorithm that dictates the continued classification of a certain category of information is likely to be wrong at least sometimes.

However, the declassification process is composed of several discrete steps, many or all of which could be facilitated by new technologies. These steps include the collection and assembly of records for review, the circulation of records to reviewers as needed, the actual review and redaction process, and the distribution of the declassified records, among others -- each of which might be streamlined and expedited by new technological measures.

So, for example, if it were possible to routinely incorporate the digitization of records into the declassification process, and to make the digitized records available online so that readers would not have to come to the National Archives or to the Presidential Libraries just to view them, that action alone would multiply the utility of the declassification process many times over.

But perhaps the strongest contribution that technology could make involves the future declassification of records that are being classified today. Classified records that are being created now could be tagged in such a way as to expedite their ultimate declassification. In fact, the goal should be to eliminate the need for declassification processing altogether, or as far as possible. Instead, most classified records should literally be self-declassifying. Their classification controls should expire and be automatically canceled. In principle, this ought to be readily achievable.

The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a public session on the potential role of new technology in declassification on Thursday, September 23 at the National Archives. The agenda is here (pdf).

The new DARPA solicitation was reported in "Darpa Wants You To Build An Anti-Secrecy App" by Spencer Ackerman in Wired Danger Room, September 14.


The theory and practice of national security classification policy in the late cold war years are exemplified and explored in back issues of Classification Management, the journal of the National Classification Management Society (NCMS), which is the professional society of classification officers and other security professionals. Several back issues of the journal are now available online.

"Security Classification is the black sheep of the Information Science family," wrote C.C. Carnes in the first issue (pdf) of Classification Management in 1965 (p.15). "Everyone else is trying to expedite the flow of information. People working in the field of Security Classification are trying to impede, control, and limit the flow of information. However, we should not be blamed for this apparent perversity. It serves a purpose."

That purpose is discussed in depth and detail and with notable candor.

"LIMDIS controls came into existence largely to replace bogus security markings such as SNTK, MK, and CNTK," explained Raymond P. Schmidt of the Navy (NCMS Viewpoints 1992 [pdf], at p. 34).

While much of the security policy content of the journals is now obsolete, they retain historical, sociological and perhaps even anthropological interest.

The first couple of issues of the journal comprised "virtually the entire body of published information on the professional aspects of classification management" at that time, wrote NCMS President (and ACDA official) Richard L. Durham in 1966 (Vol. 2, p. 4).

A wide array of security policy issues were addressed over the years in Classification Management, including the dissemination of scientific and technological information, the conduct of classified research and development on university campuses, patent secrecy, and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

In the 1972 edition, a panel of reporters and government officials discussed the impact and meaning of the Pentagon Papers for classification management and freedom of the press (Vol. 8, pp. 64-75).

In 1990, Steven Garfinkel, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, memorably discussed "not the highlights, not the triumphs, but some of the low points" of his career as ISOO director up to that point. "This is my tenth anniversary speech. Ushers, please bar the doors." (Vol. 26, pp.6-9).

The National Classification Management Society kindly granted permission to post several back issues of Classification Management and NCMS Viewpoints on the Federation of American Scientists website here.


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

The Secrecy News Blog is at:


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