By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
U.S. Army intelligence has developed a new blueprint for standardizing the way national security information is classified, recognizing that determining whether a particular document is "confidential" or "top secret" is ultimately up to the judgment of individuals, according to a memo distributed last month by Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, the Army's deputy chief of staff.
The memo states that presidential directives and Army regulations that provide the basis for classification of security information are "broad and not clearly defined," so that the responsible individual's "determination of security classification is purely subjective."
The comments offer a rare view of one service's methods for classifying information at a time of debate over government openness. In the past few years, the leaking of classified information has been the subject of congressional investigations, criminal indictments and Supreme Court decisions, but almost no attention has been focused on what information has become classified and how that system works.
"Over classification is costly, inefficient and can cause slow downs to development/operation," the Army memo says. "Under classification," it adds, "can cause compromise, inadvertent disclosures and confusion."
The memo notes that even when a document within the Army system is deemed unclassified, that "does not mean that it is automatically releaseable to the public." A category called "Controlled Unclassified Information" allows information to be protected from public view. This category includes the label "For Official Use Only," which can involve things such as "internal rules and practices of the agency," trade secrets, intra-agency memos that "are part of the decision-making process" and records that invade a person's privacy.
The memo also says a compilation of individually unclassified items can be considered classified "if the compiled information reveals an additional association or relationship" that otherwise would not be apparent.
But before even unclassified information can be released, according to the memo, "a competent authority, specifically the Public Affairs Officer, must review and determine that the information is releasable to the public."
The Army memorandum attempts to describe the harm to national security or to U.S. foreign relations that would result from unauthorized disclosure of various types of classified information. The label "confidential" is put on information that, if disclosed, would result in "damage" to national security; "secret" when disclosure would result in "serious damage"; or "top secret" when it would cause "exceptionally grave damage."
These categories do not include even higher levels of classification, such as "Sensitive Compartmented Information," which normally refers to intelligence gathered electronically that, if disclosed, could result in the loss of sensitive sources or methods of collection.
"Failure to classify correctly has consequences," said Steven Aftergood, who disclosed the Army memo on his Secrecy News Web site ( http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy ). "But getting it right is easier said than done, because it involves the conscious exercise of informed judgment."
Many of the criteria for classification are obvious, such as if the information's loss would reveal military plans or open senior leadership to a terrorist attack. But others are much more ambiguous.
For example, the memo states that information would be "confidential" if its loss "could threaten the international position of the U.S.," an outcome it further defines as damaging "U.S. credibility with a foreign government."
Information would be "secret" if its disclosure "would weaken the international position of the U.S.," which is defined as causing a "negative impact to the international position of the U.S. and its ability to negotiate with foreign governments." Information would be considered "top secret" if disclosure would "significantly weaken" the U.S. position, meaning it would result in the "inability of the U.S. to successfully negotiate with a foreign government for a significant period of time."
Another element in the Army memorandum is the suggestion that if a document contains information meeting two different categories of "confidential," it could be classified as "secret." And if it has two different "secret" pieces of information, it could be classified as "top secret."
The Army is seeking to set its classification standards at the same time that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte has part of his staff working to establish common classification standards for the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community so they can share one another's secret information.
A spokesman for Negroponte's office declined to comment on the Army document.