A Secret Problem
By Rafael Hoffman
When the FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago and allegedly found hundreds of classified documents, some of his defenders rhetorically asked, “How many other presidents have similar collections?”
Their presumption seemed justified when lawyers for President Joseph Biden announced that several sets of secret documents from his time as Vice President were found in his former office and Delaware homes. The story turned comical, last week, when a lawyer for former Vice President Mike Pence announced that he too was in possession of a few classified files.
These recent revelations brought heightened public attention to what experts call a massive “over-classification” problem in the United States government.
In an attempt to gain a better understanding of the classification process and the roots of why the government has so many secret documents, Hamodia spoke with Sina Beaghley, Senior International/Defense Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation policy think tank. Before joining RAND, she spent 10 years in the federal government, including as Director for Intelligence and Information Security on the National Security Council (NSC) and as Chief for Near East and Africa Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center.
Who decides what documents become classified and what criteria is it based on?
Classification polices are based on executive order, which most presidents update and issue during their term in office. These lay out the system and positions that have original authority to classify documents. Estimates I’ve seen say that gives between 2,000 and 3,000 people the ability to classify documents.
In addition to that, each department or agency has its own security classification guidance, which states something to the effect of “records relating to this topic should be classified at the SECRET level, or, if you associate this item and this other type of information, it should be classified at the TOP SECRET level.” After the original classification record is made, anyone else who handles material related to that topic and classifies material that uses that record does so through derivative classification. The people in that category have what is known as derivative classifying authority; that is, once they get a document or email that contains discussion of a given topic at a certain classification level, it should then remain classified at that level.
The first is a group of relatively senior individuals, but the second can be anyone who has been authorized to handle classified material. A few thousand people who can originally classify sounds like a lot, but if you think about the fact that more than four million people have been cleared to handle classified information throughout the federal government and its contractor support, it’s not really that high for those with the original classification responsibility.
What determines the various categories of classification?
There are three basic categories, each based on the degree of damage the information could cause if it got into the wrong hands or became public without authorization. The lowest level is “confidential,” which means that exposure to unauthorized persons could cause “damage to national security.” “Secret” is defined as information that could cause “serious damage,” and “top secret” could cause “exceptionally grave damage” if it is disclosed without authorization.
These obviously could cover a lot of different types of material. Examples of records that tend to be in the lower two levels could be State Department cables and analysis of conversations between diplomats that if exposed could harm international relations with a given country. An example of a record that would likely be Top Secret would be information that compromises a human source and could put lives at risk.
What differences exist between classification categories regarding who has access to them and how they must be handled?
In general, people get cleared for different levels of access. Besides that, people are authorized to have access to information on a need-to-know basis; if they have a job-related reason to be in a classified meeting on a certain topic, or have access to a computer system containing materials they are authorized to see at a certain classification level. For the highest, compartmented information, it may only be viewed and handled in a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF).
Is there a system in place to review and declassify documents?
There is a system in place and a review process, but that usually does not happen until years after they have been classified. The declassification time depends on the sensitivity of the information, but 25 years is standard for automatic declassification, except for extraordinary cases.
There is a significant backlog that exists and is growing. The significant reduction of classified work over the COVID pandemic made that even worse. The volume of classified material is so significant that it is hard to imagine the situation getting much better under a system that requires manual review of each document. There is a good amount of interest now in using artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up review, which is probably the only way to significantly speed up the process.
The declassification and release process has been under scrutiny for some time now, and the recent classified document scandals have brought far more attention to it. In Congress, there’s been a movement for a while to step up efforts to declassify more information faster, and the current presidential administration has also said they believe this is a need that needs to be addressed.
What do you see as the chief causes of overclassification?
A significant reason that this occurs is that there is no penalty for overclassifying, but there are many and very serious penalties for underclassifying. Underclassifying material — or mishandling classified information — can wreak havoc on your career or even lead to jail time. Based on that, people have a big incentive to handle every document with the maximum safety they can.
There is a lot of public talk about other motivations in overclassification like saving individuals from embarrassment or hiding damaging information about officials. I’m not saying that never happens or could never happen, but these are not the motivations that account for the day-to-day classification — and overclassification, in some cases — of millions of documents.
When did American’s overclassification problem develop, and what caused it?
Whether it is intentional or not, technology created a far higher volume of classified material. Emails, secure communications, and teleconferences can all be classified records now. The system of classification that we use now started in earnest in 1951, before much of these communications mechanisms even existed. That is when the general rules and system were made, but we’re in a very different place now. The means of communication and storing have evolved a lot, but the means to declassify have not evolved at the same pace.
We have a system where every email and every response that starts with a certain topic gets marked classified by default, if the originating email was such, because that email contained classified information at the start. The result is that an entire email chain gets classified even if the topic changes into employees making lunch plans.
Information that was sensitive but that becomes irrelevant quickly is also a contributing factor. If the President is traveling somewhere, his plans will be kept secret, but after he’s come and gone, that information has no value anymore and no operational security risk any longer, yet it will remain classified until it is declassified. It’s part of the problem, but with the volume of records, including much more highly classified information that needs review, it’s hard to see how it could be addressed in a more timely manner. These are other areas where it may be that technology can be employed to help sort through material and declassify in a more timely manner.
What are other ways to address the overclassification problem?
During the 10 years I spent working in the classified world, I never saw a “security classification guide.” As a derivative classifier, I went with the classification of the original document that I used as the source. So, if something started with a certain level of classification, I classified everything else that had to do with it on the same level. So, in addition to concerns about getting in trouble if you underclassify, I think historically, there’s a lack of understanding of what really needs to be classified and at what level for those who are performing derivative classification functions.
One of the most important remedies is specific training on this. There is more training in place now than there was when I was in government some years ago, so that has been significantly improved, but there’s more to do.
The fact is that the overclassification issue is a difficult one to improve. You have a lot of people going about their day-to-day jobs, and frequently in a high-pace and high-stakes mission, so for them to stop and question why documents coming across their desks were classified in a certain way is not so practical and doesn’t happen with frequency. There is a review and appeals process if an individual thinks material is classified inappropriately, but more often than not, it is much easier and timesaving to just continue with that classification marking and move on to the next mission task of the day.
What problems does overclassification lead to?
One impact is that when there is more classified material than can be reviewed and released in a timely manner, you don’t have the transparency in government happening and accountability to the American people that the United States’ democracy is built on. When information is withheld from the American public for longer than it should be, because it was either overclassified or couldn’t be reviewed for declassification in a timely manner, that is a disservice to the very people that the government is supposed to represent and to serve.
Is there a gap as to how classified documents are often handled by presidential administration members and members of the intelligence community?
Most of the career national security professionals and intelligence community members have been handing classified information for years. By contrast, some elected or appointed politicians might be newer to government and are dealing with classified material for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, they are still trained on how to handle classified material, but they have less experience in doing so. However, even on the political appointee level, there are a lot of the people there who have worked in government before and are now re-entering government on the political side of things. Another item to note, many of the people who support a presidential administration — like staffers in the National Security Council — are detailees from departments and agencies like the State Department, or DOD, or NSA, and have all been dealing with classified information, and should have a respect for the rules and a concept of what the impact that breaking them could entail.
Is the conclusion that much of the public is coming to that multiple former Presidents and high-ranking officials likely have classified documents in their possession accurate? Well, there have been certainly a lot of cases of that lately, it seems. More than have been reported in the past. As far as I understand it, we don’t know just yet whether the documents that have made news were removed by the Presidents or Vice Presidents themselves or reviewed and packed by staff. And whether, in each case, it was intentional or unintentional. Having worked on the National Security Council Staff, I can attest that I was briefed multiple times about the importance of preserving presidential records, and also on how to handle information that is marked as classified. But on a practical level, I could understand where it is possible to have classified and unclassified documents together if they weren’t clearly labeled with cover sheets, and I can see how there is potential for classified material to be mixed with unclassified material if you’re packing up an office that was authorized to handle both categories of material, and if the person reviewing the material is not reviewing every single piece of paper by hand before packing it up.
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