Information Security Oversight Office Report Shows Government Overclassification Remains Pervasive

The number of pages of classified government documents that were declassified, as well as the number reviewed for declassification, declined from the year before, according to the Information Security Oversight Office’s (ISOO) Report for Fiscal Year 2011 [PDF].

The report found that 26.7 million pages were declassified through automatic, systematic, and discretionary declassification reviews, the lowest number of declassified pages since the 1980–1994 period. See the chart below:

Trendlines in the ISOO report indicate that President Obama’s 2009 goal of reviewing 400 million pages of classified records of historical importance by December 2013 “is not likely to be met,” says a response by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

While the total volume of declassified documents per year appears to be slowing, the ISOO report shows that in 2011, as in past years, the majority of classification decisions that were appealed to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel were overturned in whole or in part, resulting in the declassification and release of records which government agencies had sought to classify. FAS observes:

Because this pattern has persisted for 15 years (since the Panel was established), it represents empirical proof that overclassification has been and still remains pervasive, even by internal executive branch standards. In fact, there are indications that the Panel itself is too conservative in its handling of classification disputes. Recently, even the hyper-retentive National Security Agency decided to fully release a document despite a Panel finding that it should remain partly classified.

The ISOO report doesn’t address the implications that over-classification remains rife in federal agencies but ISOO Director John P. Fitzpatrick, in a letter addressed to the President at the beginning of the report, emphasized that 2011 would mark the launch of the first executive branch-wide Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.


“Agencies with original classification authority began comprehensive reviews of their classification guidance, particularly classification guides, to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified,” wrote Fitzpatrick. “We believe that significant results will be obtained from this program.”