"You'll hear it said sometimes that if you put three people in a room, you'll get four classification decisions," joked Robert Rogalski, the director of security for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But the issue is a serious one, Rogalski told a symposium on classification at the National Archives, because of public unease about growing government secrecy and over-classification -- making documents secret when they do not really need to be.
"It makes our job easier if the American public doesn't believe we're trying to hide behind secrets ... We should be as transparent as possible," he said.
Lawrence Halloran, a senior staffer from the House Homeland Security and Terrorism Subcommittee, added that over-classification damaged the integrity of the system and encouraged leaks and other violations of classified protocols.
"People notice all kinds of stuff sloshing around (in the classification system) and that makes them think it's OK" to leak, he said.
He added that the system of government secrecy had been formed by a process of "accretion over time," and was "an ungainly, confusing and illogical mess."
Earlier Lee Hamilton -- former congressman, long-time chairman of the House International Relations Committee and more recently the vice-chair of the Sept. 11 commission -- told the audience that more than 70 percent of the secret material he had reviewed during that inquiry had been, in his view "needlessly classified."
The commission's final report found that "current security requirements nurture over-classification" and that this was, in turn, a barrier to the information sharing between federal agencies and with local law enforcement that is vital to the fight against terrorism.
Rogalski said that the bad classification decisions by defense officials his office had reviewed resulted not from "ill motives."
A lot of those decisions were made -- sometimes literally -- "in the heat of the battle," he said, adding that under such circumstances officials "may sometimes take a too-conservative approach to classification."
As a result, he said, the Pentagon was launching an education program, "starting at the top," to "change the security culture," in the department and introduce more rigorous decision-making.
"It needs to make sense to the American public," he said of a decision to classify a document. "There needs to be accountability for those decisions."
He said the Pentagon had cut the number of officials with the power to classify documents by 14 percent, to 912, and had introduced minimum training requirements for those that remained.
He added that the new requirements were part of a "security professionalization program" including the development of certification and qualification processes.
But Halloran said that changes like that were like the Defense Department "tuning up your Edsel."
At the end of the process, he said, "Your car is tuned, but it's still a really old car that may not get you where you want to go."
He said the classification system, instituted after WW-II was haunted by "Cold War ghosts and demons."
"All the incentives operate in the direction of keeping things secret," he said.
There were "default assumptions" in the present system: that it was better to err on the side of over-classification; and that once a document was classified, it should remain so unless good cause should be shown to reverse that decision.
These assumptions, he said "needed to be reset."
There should be automatic declassification after a period of time has elapsed, he said, something which was introduced, in theory, in March 2003, when President George W. Bush amended the law upon which government classification authority was founded -- presidential Executive Order 12958.
According to the amendment, by Dec. 26 next year, all classified documents 25 years or more old should be declassified -- unless they are covered by one or more of about a dozen exemptions. Thereafter, documents will be automatically declassified on Dec. 31 of the 25th year after they were first made secret.
But a report last month from the Information Security Oversight Office -- the government watchdog that oversees classification -- examined the degree of readiness of 46 government agencies for the advent of this automatic declassification program and found that more than half were unprepared.
"Based upon the information available to us at this time," the report said, "we are confident that 22 (compared with 23 last year) of 46 agencies will be prepared on Dec 31, 2006."
And some speakers at the symposium were also skeptical about the impact of automatic declassification.
"The executive order has failed the nation," said open government campaigner Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
Halloran stressed the need to be strict about time limits, pointing out that much information only need to be kept secret for a limited period of time.
"From the moment it's classified," he said, "the clock should start ticking."
Rogalski said as part of the professionalization program, officials with classification power would be challenged "to ensure that they can really stand up and justify" why a given document should be classified.
"There needs to be accountability for those decisions," he said.
But he added that the executive order contained language that needed to be interpreted. The order says that information can lawfully be classified only if its "unauthorized disclosure ... reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security."
"What's damage?" asked Rogalski. "What's serious damage?" he added, referring to another part of the order. As a result, he said, the guidelines produced by the department were "rather subjective."
Last year, a report prepared for the Department of Defense by the scientific advisory panel known as the Jason Group found that the classification system was so unwieldy -- especially in battlefield situations -- that it is often bypassed altogether by frustrated military personnel.
"Under-classification 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 that 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.
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