Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists: “Set a Mandatory Performance Goal to Catalyze Transformation”

In order to induce a transformation of the national security classification system, the President should set a performance goal that will advance the desired transformation, and then mandate its achievement by executive branch agencies.

Instead of trying to specify each and every one of the policy and procedural changes needed for an effective transformation, this approach would seek to catalyze change by establishing a mandatory performance objective (or multiple objectives) and then requiring agencies to work out the necessary adjustments.

Several questions immediately arise.  First, what is the desired transformation of the classification system that the current process seeks to promote?

My provisional answer to the question would be that the desired transformation should aim to achieve a classification system that has a reduced scope of application (i.e., fewer categories of secrets), a reduced volume of classification activity (less classification), and a reduced duration of classification.  In order to best serve its national security purpose, the classification system should be “lean and mean,” not bloated and arbitrary.  Its dimensions should be stable or shrinking, not perpetually growing.

What are the characteristics of a performance goal that would help to catalyze a change in classification policy?

Any performance goal that is selected should be intrinsically significant, not abstract or merely procedural.  It should be worthwhile as a policy objective in its own right in order to justify and propel the desired changes in current classification policy and practice.  And yet it should be reasonably achievable right now or in the near term.  Vague or idealized conceptions or labor-intensive proposals that have no realistic chance of acceptance will not serve as effective catalysts.

What is a concrete example of such a performance goal?

One possible example would be a new requirement to publish a declassified documentary history of major U.S. national security policy decisions and actions no later than 25 years after the events they record, allowing for only the narrowest of exemptions.  This publication would be analogous to the Foreign Relations of the United States series and to the Public Papers of the President in its professional quality and documentary character, but it would focus on publication of classified national security policy records that are to be newly declassified for this purpose.

As a performance goal for catalyzing transformation of the classification system, this proposal has several pertinent features:

First, the idea that the full record of U.S. national security policy should be regularly disclosed is an inherently powerful one that properly characterizes an open society.  The nation should be able to take pride in routinely disclosing the records of its national security history, including even (or especially) shameful or problematic episodes, and airing them fully and publicly.  This is a worthy objective independent of its potential for inducing transformation of classification policy– which is one of the things that make it a useful tool for purposes of catalyzing change.

Second, this proposal would engage and require the cooperation of the entire national security establishment, including its military, diplomatic and intelligence components.  It would also sweep broadly across different record formats and types of media. To the extent that audio, video, and other records (including congressional records) formed an essential part of the national security record, they would be encompassed as well.

And third, the proposal is both feasible today and it is in significant tension with current classification and declassification policy, which means that it would require and inspire numerous changes in practice.

As noted above, the concept of a regular documentary record of national security policy is similar to the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on foreign policy that is published by the U.S. State Department.  But the FRUS production process is mired in administrative and classification disputes.  It mainly serves a narrow constituency of diplomatic historians.  It is far from meeting its goal of publishing records within 30 years of the recorded events.  Agencies habitually disregard deadlines for reviewing documents for inclusion in FRUS, and they adhere to obsolete classification practices, such as censoring the amounts of half-century old intelligence budget figures.

By contrast, in the proposed initiative for a new documentary history of national security policy, most of those longstanding obstacles could be eliminated by presidential fiat.  For example, the President could set new classification standards for this particular project, ordering that those 25 year old classified records that are deemed essential to a thorough, accurate and reliable account of U.S. national security history will be declassified unless they meet the narrow criteria that ordinarily permit 50 year old records to be exempted from declassification.  This would mean that only information that would identify a confidential human intelligence source or reveal key design concepts for weapons of mass destruction could be withheld from publication in the new series.  This step alone would drastically simplify the declassification review process by making most such reviews pointless and irrelevant.  Also, the kind of missed deadlines that plague FRUS would be interpreted as concurrence by the reviewing agency.

In this way, the continuing production of an official record of national security history, vetted by professional historians (whether at the State Department or elsewhere), would have the catalytic potential to break the current logjam in production of the FRUS series and in declassification more broadly (with indirect but salutary effects on classification as well).  It would generate a newly available series of permanently valuable record collections for the nation as a whole.  While it would not constitute a transformation of the classification system all by itself, it would advance the process of modernizing and rationalizing classification policy, and would help to galvanize further changes.

Many other types of catalytic performance goals could be imagined and adopted.  What is crucial is that they must trigger meaningful and measurable changes in classification and declassification practice in the near term.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the importance of the pending Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, which was mandated by the President in December 2009, and which must be completed by June 2012.  If implemented in good faith, this process should both reduce the current scope of classification and diminish the future declassification burden.  Nothing else on the near-term policy horizon has comparable transformative potential.  But the Review process needs clearly articulated performance goals of its own, as well as active support, encouragement and leadership in order to succeed.

3 thoughts on “Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists: “Set a Mandatory Performance Goal to Catalyze Transformation”

  1. This proposal has some inherently good ideas that seem to be mired in hyperbole that is more of an attack on the bureaucrats who must facilitate real change than encouragement to actually do so. The useful gems here include a call to revisit classification (and declassification) guidelines, the need to focus on historically relevant declassification instead of everything, and the call for these changes to have the active support, encouragement and leadership (at the most senior level in government) to succeed.

  2. Thanks for this proposal. It was especially interesting to me as someone concerned about preserving our Government’s national security history.

    Who would be responsible for writing the declassified documentary history that you are proposing? It seems that a centralized history program would be necessary to ensure that a comprehensive approach is taken. Furthermore, this centralized program would need to have a records management focus to ensure the records needed to complete this history are not only prioritized for declassification, but are identified and preserved in the first place. Would a Center at the IC or at the NDC be an appropriate organization to tackle this job? CIA has a vibrant program, could their mission be expanded, especially given the availability of resources?

    1. Thank you for the question. I am not certain what the right answer is.

      The proposed documentary history would have to have to be prepared by a team of professional historians with subject matter expertise as well as unrestricted access to classified agency collections. This would be a challenging historical project and not a records management exercise. So it probably would need to be housed at an existing agency historical office or at a new one established for this purpose.

      The State Department Historian’s Office is accustomed to interacting with other agencies in the preparation of the Foreign Relations of the United States series and has part of the needed “infrastructure,” but as I mentioned above its process currently leaves much to be desired. The State Department may need to get the FRUS series in order before taking on additional burdens of this sort.

      CIA and NSA both have substantive history programs, but they seem to be hopelessly subordinated to the existing classification regime — which is what we are seeking to transform. I am not sure that they are capable of challenging and overcoming the legacy classification practices and procedures to the degree that is necessary.

      The NDC is of course focused on the declassification mission, but I don’t think it has a resident historical staff. Nor does it have ready access to classified agency records that are 25 years old or less.

      Another scenario would be to direct each agency to generate its own declassified documentary history. This would be “easier” to implement in some respects, but without a centralized, government-wide focus that is outside of any individual agency’s control, I think that the transformative potential of the idea would be lost.

      I don’t know what the capabilities of the Defense Department are in this area.

      I think a next step might be to consult with agency historians at ODNI, State, and perhaps CIA and NSA in order to get their reading of the feasibility of this proposal, and their assessment of what authorities and resources would be needed to execute it effectively. The nay-sayers will quickly remove themselves from further consideration, while others may be able to advance the idea with recommendations of their own…

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