Classification of Documents

It seems that just about every time our government, our science and technical communities, and military in particular develops something innovative or new, our foes seem to have it within weeks or months. It’s due to our own lack of human, cyber, and physical security.

Top elected as well as appointed officials and senior Pentagon Brass often blithely purloin sensitive National Security documents for whatever reasons, to use in constructing memoirs, to sell to our enemies, or for illicit business gain. In all cases, whether out of ignorance, arrogance, or criminal intent, they are violating the Official Secrets Act. Because of their rank or status they likely receive a gentle slap on their wrist if caught while lower ranking worker bees are subject to punishment ranging from career damaging actions for minor offenses or even prison for serious offenses. It’s a wrongheaded demoralizing and self destructive two-tiered system.

We conduct personal background checks to vet candidates for security clearances ranging from LOU/OUO, CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TOP SECRET (with myriad subheadings or subclassifications governing dissemination) with periodic classification/access updates for those with the higher levels of access. A dozen or so million people have security clearances, some general, and some specialized. That’s a bunch, far too much or too many to manage well.

A typical case would see one passing a police record check when joining the armed forces and approval for OUO (Official Use Only) when exiting boot camp and starting training. Later, upon joining the fleet for example, I was cleared for SECRET. Subsequently I was cleared for SECRET/CRYPTO followed shortly with TOP SECRET and CRYPTO for communications and military intelligence. Other acronyms were added along the way as my access and involvement became more sensitive. In my 30-years of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage work I never had reason to classify anything TOP SECRET.
When young and unwise, I once questioned a SECRET document (after painstakingly deciphering it the old fashioned manual way) because the text was word-for-word a newspaper article. I was told that it was classified SECRET not because of the text, but because of our interest in the subject. I held my silence.

For decades, everyone in the lower tier has often been unfairly subjected to punitive actions while the upper tier walk free to continue their gross abuses.

A part of the Official Secrets Act is a “General Declassification Schedule” governing classification downgrades of most classified documents on a set schedule until they are UNCLASSIFIED and open to anyone. Based on an alphabet soup of coded exclusions, some are not downgraded or released for up to, for instance, 75-years after an intelligence agent’s death, the maximum.

With the end of painstaking, time-consuming manual encryption and the beginning of high speed electro-mechanical and then electronic encryption, the volume of classified messaging exploded. The obvious question needing answers is: Why? Are there that many secrets suddenly needing protection. Or, was it to satisfy egos? IMHO, much of the information that has or is being “classified” is unworthy of classification.

We have all heard of ‘grade creep’ or “empire building” I am sure. We have untold numbers of people possessing security clearances/access who have no need for such. Just about every retired flag grade military officer and former executive level civilian gets to retain their clearances after retirement. This is not wise or beneficial. When they retire and sever their employment their security clearances ought to be revoked.

We have a serious problem with overclassification, classification creep. There are, I am certain, way too many TOP SECRET documents floating around in people’s cellars that are likely inappropriately classified. [TOP SECRET means that disclosure to others could likely cause a war.] Knowing the preferred toilet paper brand of Kim Jong Un is not a justification for classifying that info as TOP SECRET…

It’s time for Inspectors General of federal agencies to start punishing people who unnecessarily or unwisely over classify as well as all who mishandle properly classified documents.

About James E. Horn

Retired American Diplomat served in American embassies and consulates for 25-years, ten in Islamic societies. I am not a fan of Islam. I do public speaking and have books listed.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.