Most of the national security agencies in the executive branch have now been granted approval to exempt certain 50 year old classified information from automatic declassification.
The national security classification system normally requires declassification of classified documents as they become 25 years old, with several specified exemptions to allow continued classification up to 50 years.
Only "in extraordinary cases" may agency heads propose to exempt information from declassification when it is 50 years old, says President Obama's 2009 executive order 13526. They must request and receive approval from the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP).
So it was somewhat disconcerting to see an updated Notice from the Information Security Oversight Office last week indicating that dozens of executive branch agencies have now been granted exemptions from declassification for 50 year old information, including all of the major national security agencies. The United States Mint, among others, was even granted an exemption for 75 year old classified information.
It appeared that the extraordinary had become quite ordinary.
But that initial impression is not correct, said John P. Fitzpatrick, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the national security classification system.
In the first place, the exemptions from declassification are limited to specific categories of information that the ISCAP was persuaded "would clearly and demonstrably cause damage to national security."
"Blanket exemptions were not approved," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
And proposed exemptions for particular categories of information were critically reviewed by the ISCAP members, he said. "They often required agencies to make specific changes to their proposed declassification guide before granting approval."
Because the ISCAP is a presidential body (of which he is the Executive Secretary), Mr. Fitzpatrick said he could not provide detailed information about its deliberative process. But he responded to several questions on the subject in general terms.
"During the evaluation of agency exemptions the ISCAP required that certain agencies significantly narrow their submissions," he said. "In some cases, the ISCAP required that an agency remove a requested exemption element."
Moreover, exemption from "automatic declassification" does not necessarily mean exemption from declassification altogether. Individual "records exempted from automatic declassification remain subject to mandatory declassification review," he noted.
Why does the U.S. Mint need an exemption from declassification for 75 year old information? Is it some sort of anti-counterfeiting issue? No, he said, that's not it.
The U.S. Mint declassification exemption, "which is perhaps the most [narrowly] targeted of all ISCAP-approved exemptions," applies solely to "security specifications from the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, which was built in the late 1930s," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
"Think 'Goldfinger'," he said.