Reforming the Classification System: Challenges, Approaches, and Priorities

On December 6, 2022 the Hudson Institute hosted an event, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), the American Bar Association, and the Federalist Society, on “Reforming the Classification System: Challenges, Approaches, and Priorities.” The event opened with PIDB’s chair Ezra Cohen and vice chair Alissa Starzak introducing the topic and providing the board’s perspective on classification system challenges, and continued with a panel discussion between subject matter experts from government and academia, moderated by PIDB member Carter Burwell.

The event’s opening dialogue highlighted the PIDB’s role as a nonpartisan advisory body, which helps to facilitate discussion on policy and a systematic approach to the classification process as a whole, with a goal of generating solutions and leveraging both technological and organizational system improvements to achieve greater efficiency and to prioritize the application of scarce resources. The opening conversation between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Starzak highlighted:

  • developing processes for the real-time evaluation of document classification;
  • facilitating consistency in classification standards through a“whole of government” approach; noting that standardization and a systemic approach would support FOIA processing;
  • considering the creation of a dedicated program office to create and implement  classification standards, systems, and processes across the federal government; and
  • addressing the practical costs of overclassification and compartmentalization—including impacts on operations, acquisitions, and research and development.

The panel discussion moderated by Mr. Burwell followed on points from the opening and further addressed both the harms that result from over-classification and delayed declassification, as well as potential approaches to solutions, including the panelists’ best recommendations for reforming classification systems government-wide.

The panelists emphasized that the harms from over-classification and over-compartmentalization were operational as well as administrative, and that they also have repercussions outside of direct impacts to the federal government, including the undermining of congressional oversight and public trust. The panelists noted that national security considerations remain imperative, as real harms can result from the release of sensitive information, requiring a balance between mitigating harms of release and mitigating harms from a lack of information-sharing (highlighting post 9/11 processes as a shift in intelligence community culture and approach to overclassification).

Specific recommendations from panelists included:

  • developing more specific and narrow criteria for for classification;
  • developing artificial intelligence and machine learning to assist human decisions for classification and declassification by identifying and “flagging” key terms or categories, noting that the growing volume of classified records already exceeds the ability of humans alone to process them;
  • balancing incentives for classification decisions from the current default of ‘classify when in doubt,’ to ‘classify where appropriate’ on an informed basis;
  • streamlining agency review to allow concurrent rather than sequential processes;
  • considering more specific language addressing declassification standards and processes;
  • establishing a date upon which true “automatic declassification” takes effect, forcing agencies to take a risk management approach to their reviews and empowering the National Declassification Center to make declassification decisions;
  • creating separate channels to address the declassification of (1) historic records and (2) current information of public interest, in order to facilitate the prioritization of resources; and
  • establishing “fast-track” authority to address high-profile or urgent information-sharing and declassification requests.

The panel concluded by emphasizing the importance of classification issues—growing volumes of classified records contrast with limited resources, and that could eventually lead to systemic failure. The panelists emphasized that delay in addressing the issues will only result in greater costs and risks; real change, even if incremental to start, is urgently needed, and deadlines should reflect the urgency of the problem. They noted that “there is no such thing as a ‘no risk’ approach”— advocating an informed risk-management approach to balancing real security needs with aggressively measured reforms.  

Video of the event is available at:

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