- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

The system for protecting government information is outdated and almost unworkable, according to a report prepared for the Department of Defense by a secretive scientific advisory panel.

The panel, known as the Jason Group, reviewed the system used to classify sensitive government information at the request of the Office of Defense Research and Engineering in the Pentagon.

The group concluded that the classification system is so unwieldy — especially in battlefield situations — that it’s often bypassed altogether by frustrated military personnel and “ought to be radically changed.”

“Users,” the report states, “see an overly rigid, out-of-date, bureaucratic structure of information classification … and an individual clearance process that is glacially slow, and under which large numbers of fighting men and women are, in practical terms, unclearable.”

As a result, the report says, “underclassification of documents — often quietly justified as necessary for ease in transporting documents between meeting sites — is a well-known practice.”

For example, the report said, imagery from the top-secret Predator unmanned aerial-reconnaissance vehicle is unclassified, with troops relying on “an ad hoc system of operational practices” to protect it.

“The current situation of out-of-date or operationally unimplementable rules, combined with widespread violation of those rules, is a bad place to be,” the report concludes.

J. William Leonard, the federal government’s secrecy watchdog, agreed in broad terms with the report’s critique.

“I draw a vast distinction between the tactical military environment and the bureaucracy here in Washington,” said Mr. Leonard, who runs the Information Security Oversight Office.

Mr. Leonard said amendments to the classification system after September 11 have given more flexibility to agencies to share classified information — even with people not authorized to see it — under such emergency circumstances.

But the report points out that this flexibility is very hard to calibrate.

“In the present system, there is no way to turn up or down the knob that governs the trade-off between security and operational needs,” he said.

According to the report, the current system was devised in the 1940s and has remained basically unchanged since, despite the revolution in information technology.

The Jason Group report concluded with a call for an updated system, one based on transactional risk, or the chance that any given transaction will be compromised, rather than on assigning a level of classification to a document based on the potential damage caused by disclosure.

“It is obvious that the one-time display of a classified document on a (secure) computer terminal to a (cleared) individual — which we can call ‘soft access’ — is inherently less risky than providing that same individual with a paper copy of the same document — ‘hard access.’ ”

But Mr. Leonard pointed out that the rules only tell agencies what they can classify, not what they must keep secret. Each government agency uses the rules as the basis for its own classification guidance.

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