WASHINGTON (AP) — Intelligence agencies are considering eliminating the government’s lowest category of classified information — a step a top official has said could simplify the system used to guard intelligence and could prevent unnecessary secrecy.
In a memo circulated to intelligence agencies in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper proposed abolishing the “confidential” level of classification, a step that would, in theory, raise the bar for whether information is kept secret. The move, Clapper wrote, could promote transparency by “focusing personnel more directly on only marking items that would cause significant and demonstrable harm to national security if improperly released.”
Clapper’s memo, posted online earlier this month, is part of a periodic, broad review of the classification system President Barack Obama ordered in 2009. But it comes amid a campaign-year debate over how the government labels — and how officials handle — sensitive information.
The discussion was sparked by the probe into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. The FBI is investigating whether classified information inappropriately flowed through the server. Clinton’s presidential campaign has said that none of the information was classified at the time it was sent, and has blamed agencies’ tendency to “over classify” documents.
Clapper’s proposal, if adopted, would only affect intelligence agencies under his purview and would have no direct impact on the Clinton probe or the State Department. Each department must conduct its own review of the classification system every five years. The current review is slated to be completed in 2017.
Still, the memo is another example of the issue increasingly receiving high-level attention. Obama this week backed up the Clinton’s campaign complaint about classification run amok.
“There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” he said in an interview with Fox News Sunday. “There’s stuff that is really top secret top secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state, that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”
A White House official said Clapper’s memo was in line with initiatives the administration has pursued to improve transparency.
In addition to proposing eliminating the “confidential” tier, Clapper also sought intelligence agency heads’ feedback on paring down the number of people authorized to classify documents and increasing the frequency with which information is declassified.
Clapper noted that the United Kingdom eliminated the “confidential” classification in 2014 “without impact.”
The impact here would likely depend on the agency. The intelligence agencies Clapper oversees rely more heavily on the “secret” and “top secret” classification than the State Department, which routinely mark cables confidential, said Steven Aftergood, the Director of the Government Secrecy Project at Federation of American Scientists, who first wrote about the Clapper memo.
Still, Aftergood said he saw the memo as an effort to ensure the issue gets top-level attention.
“The DNI memo in particular establishes a review process that will continue into the next administration, so this isn’t a one-shot effort.” Aftergood said. “What Clapper did was to say to the agencies under his authority, you have to take this seriously.”