Folks in the intelligence field have been complaining for years that the way the government classifies information is beyond screwy. A seemingly unending array of officials have the power to render documents secret. And the decisions they make tend to be as much a matter of personal whim as of national security.Luckily -- finally -- the Army's intel shop is stepping up to do something about it, Secrecy News reveals. It has released a "standardized methodology for making original classification decisions," along with a tutorial for would-be secret-makers."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," the Washington Post notes. "But others are much more ambiguous." And surprising.
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...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."To me, the rules still seem too restrictive. But clearer rules, whatever they are, seem like a big first step towards getting ourselves out of the murky, tangled mess we're in today.