Gen. Hyten Finds Over-classification of Space Information Undermines National Security, Promises Reform

Speaking at the Schriever Space Futures Forum on November 20, 2020, Gen. John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Staff, argued that the over-classification of space information by the Department of Defense (DOD) delays the appropriate information sharing required to partner with U.S. allies and industry, and to deter adversaries in space.

At the recent forum, Gen. Hyten said: “You can’t deter people if everything you have is in the black.” He vowed “to change that structure for deterrence” and expressed his hope for significant improvement in reducing over-classification while serving as Vice Chairman. His remarks build on earlier comments he made at an Air Force Association event in January 2020. At that event, he referred to DOD classification cases as “just so overclassified it’s ridiculous, just unbelievably ridiculous.” He indicated that reform would require leadership from the Pentagon and military departments and input from industry, the private sector and the public.

Over the past year, other current and former senior officials have joined the Vice Chairman in expressing their concern about how excessive and unnecessary secrecy undermines national security. At the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2019, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett insisted that “declassifying some of what is currently held in secure vaults would be a good idea.”

Secretary Barrett was joined at that forum by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who explained that the over-classification of space information blocked public support for funding space defense initiatives: “It’s not going to happen until they understand the threat and the dependence we have. And I don’t think that can happen until we see significant declassification of what we’re doing in space and what China and Russia are doing, and how space is in their day-to-day lives.”

In an April 2020 Report to Congress, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond also vowed to reform how space information is classified, with a focus on deterring adversaries: “Our desire is to deter conflict from either beginning or extending into space… To do that deterrence, you have to change the calculus of your opponent. And to do that, you have to be able to talk and you have to be able to message.” In the report, he stressed the importance of reforming the acquisition process “to go fast” to maintain an edge over adversaries and improve flexibility.

In a Defense News op-ed published in July 2020 by former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work decried “stovepipes in space,” stressing that over-classification inhibits the efficient development of a space force focused on space as a war-fighting domain. They argued that “rules and procedures for handling sensitive information about space systems” set in place over 50 years ago reinforced an inefficient bureaucracy, in which: “The rewards for sharing pale against the penalties of mishandling highly classified space information.” They identified negative consequences of over-classification as including the duplication of space acquisition programs, poor integration of space capabilities into the plans and exercises of combatant commanders, and public ignorance of specific space threats currently developed and deployed by China and Russia.

Blair and Work called for a new “high-level commission of former officers and officials to recommend a better system” to protect information while facilitating information sharing “across acquisition programs, between programs and operational forces, and between the intelligence community and operational forces.”

Publicly, Gen. Hyten has not yet offered specific details on actions the Pentagon is taking, or noted whether there has been any progress. However, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to take several actions regarding declassification and report to Congress.

The concerns of Gen. Hyten and other leaders about the negative consequences of over-classification, and their calls for reform echo the work of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) in Recommendations and Reports to the President since 2008.

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