When people criticize overclassification of national security information, what exactly are they talking about? Is it too much secrecy? The wrong sort of secrecy? Classifying something at too high a level? Oddly, there is no widely-accepted definition of the term.
But since the solution to overclassification, if any, will naturally be shaped by the way the problem is understood, it is important to specify the problem as clearly as possible.
In 2010 Congress passed (and President Obama signed) the Reducing Over-Classification Act, which mandated several steps to improve classification practices in the executive branch. But in a minor act of legislative malpractice, Congress failed to define the meaning of the term “over-classification” (as it was spelled in the statute). So it is not entirely clear what the Act was supposed to “reduce.”
Among its provisions, the Act required the Inspectors General of all classifying agencies to perform an evaluation of each agency’s compliance with classification rules.
To assist them in their evaluations, the Inspectors General turned to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) for a working definition of overclassification that they could use to perform their task. ISOO’s answer was cited by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice in its new report. (Audit of DOJ’s Implementation of and Compliance with Certain Classification Requirements, Inspector General Audit Report 13-40, September 2013.)
- “Over-classification,” according to ISOO, means “the designation of information as classified when the information does not meet one or more of the standards for classification under section 1.1 of
- .” If something is classified in violation of the standards of the executive order– then it is “over-classified.”
So, for example, information that is not owned by the government, such as a newspaper article, cannot be properly classified under the terms of the executive order. And neither can information that has no bearing on national security, such as an Embassy dinner menu. And yet information in both categories has been known to be classified, which is indeed a species of overclassification.
Unfortunately, however, this ISOO definition presents the problem so narrowly that it misses whole dimensions of overclassification.