Obama administration considers killing lowest tier of info classification

Obama administration considers killing lowest tier of info classification
© Lauren Schneiderman

The Obama administration is considering a proposal to kill off the lowest tier of classification amid escalating scrutiny on top government officials’ ability to safeguard sensitive information.

In a memo circulated to intelligence agency leaders last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asked for feedback about getting rid of the “confidential” level of classification.


“Please comment on whether the CONFIDENTIAL classification level can be eliminated from your agencies’ guides and the negative impacts this might have on mission success,” Clapper wrote to the heads of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and three other federal intelligence offices in his three-page memo.

“This action could promote transparency,” Clapper added, by “simplifying agency classification practices,” focusing only on sensitive material “that would cause significant and demonstrable harm to national security if improperly released” and reflect the fact “that few, if any” clearances are issued at the “confidential” level alone.

Additionally, Clapper noted, the United Kingdom eliminated its “confidential” level of government secrecy in 2014, so following suit would “align” the two countries’ systems.

In addition to "confidential," the government also marks sensitive information as "secret" and "top secret."

Eliminating the lowest level of classification would have a dramatic effect on the number of classified documents created by the government.

It also could have beneficial effects for Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Momentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina MORE, whose private email server contained thousands of messages now considered classified. The vast majority of the roughly 2,000 documents on Clinton’s machine are considered confidential.

The potential change to eliminate the lowest level of classification was one of four possibilities listed in Clapper’s memo. Other suggestions included reducing the number of people able to classify materials, implementing a new “discretionary” program for declassifying documents and creating a new classification guide for agencies across the intelligence community. 

The suggestions are in response to an executive order Obama signed in 2009, which aimed to open up government secrets.

“I believe your efforts will serve as a significant step forward in furthering our shared goals for greater openness and reduced classification activity while protecting legitimate national security interests,” Clapper wrote.

The memo was dated March 23 but was largely ignored until Politico reported on the suggestion Wednesday. The Federation of American Scientists’s project on government secrecy posted the memo on its blog last week.

Obama has had a mixed record on government openness, despite his frequent promises to be “the most transparent administration in history.”

The White House has scaled back the number of new classified documents and taken steps to peel back the curtain on government secrecy, such as with his 2009 executive order. Yet the administration has also been accused of having a paltry record on compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, and more government leakers have been accused of crimes under the 1917 Espionage Act than during all other presidents combined.

This week, Obama was pilloried by some government leakers and Republicans following comments seeming to dismiss concerns about Clinton’s emails, while also suggesting that some classified information is not worthy of rigorous protection.

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” Obama said on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend.

“There’s stuff that is really top secret, top secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of State that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.”

— This report was updated at 10:48 a.m.