Agencies Use Contradictory Rules for Classifying Information

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

U.S. intelligence agencies have contradictory rules that govern classification of information, including inconsistencies over what would constitute harm if the information were disclosed, according to a report by the director of national intelligence that was made public yesterday.

"Many interpretations exist concerning what constitutes harm or the degree of harm that might result from improper disclosure of the information, often leading to inconsistent or contradictory guidelines from different agencies," said the January report disclosed by Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

The study, begun in 2006 to develop a single classification guide for the 16 intelligence agencies, reviewed the books of guidelines used by each agency. It found that there was no common understanding of the meanings of "Confidential," "Secret" and "Top Secret." Those are the three levels of classification set up by Executive Order 12958, which governs classification of national security information and was last modified in 2003.

In fact, the report concluded that "the definitions of 'national security' and what constitutes 'intelligence' -- and thus what must be classified -- are unclear." It also found that there was "no common understanding of classification levels" among the various agency guides, nor any consistent definition as to what constitutes "damage," "serious damage" or "exceptionally grave damage" to national security. Those ratings determine which level of classification should be attached to various information.

The study also found that people classifying information routinely ignored a directive that they should be able to support decisions in writing by describing the damage to national security that would result from public disclosure. Instead, it found, the classifiers routinely just referred to the executive order.

The office of the DNI declined to elaborate on the report. "I'm not going to be able to comment on an internal document that has not been publicly released," spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

The report's recommendations include requirements for "meaningful definitions of classification levels" as well as reasons "for classifying or not classifying information." It also calls for definitions of "damage levels."

This is not the first time the classification system has been declared inconsistent. A 1994 study, commissioned by the defense secretary and director of central intelligence, described the classification system as "cumbersome and confusing" and called for new "consistent and coherent" policies.

Nothing significant was done, however, and, the new report noted, "Not surprisingly, classification/dissemination/disclosure problems continue."

Aftergood, in his blog at, said the report does not address what he described as "the single most necessary change in intelligence classification policy, namely the need to narrow the definition of intelligence sources and methods that require protection."

He said almost anything, including a daily newspaper, can serve as a source or method, "but not every intelligence source or method requires or deserves classification or other protection from disclosure."

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