It likely wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the United States Department of Defense (DoD) oversees a number of classified programs of which few know all the details. Known as “Special Access Programs” (SAPs), these are established to control access and distribution and provide protection for sensitive classified information beyond that normally required. As previously reported, this is a high state of enforced need-to-know, and only a minimum number of cleared employees are given access to SAP information.
SAPs can range from secret black projects – for new aircraft, weapons, etc. – to routine but especially-sensitive operations, such as presidential transportation support. There are also two types of SAP: acknowledged and unacknowledged. The former SAP may be publicly disclosed, yet, details of the program remain classified; while the latter is known only to authorized persons, including members of the appropriate committee of the United States Congress.
SAP Under Review
In the case of the unacknowledged SAP, there are now questions as to how the Pentagon uses the classification for space-related and other programs. According to Breaking Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks is now leading a review of how the SAP is being employed.
“Inside the department, the deputy secretary has directed kind of an SAP reform effort, and that is hopefully coming to some conclusion soon. I can’t say too much about any of that, obviously, but that’s across all domains,” explained John Plumb, assistant secretary for space policy at the DoD, during an event at the Mitchell Institute on Tuesday.
“I think anyone in those systems has understood that the number of SAPs has kind of spiraled out of control,” Plumb continued.
Plumb, who was confirmed last March as DoD’s first-ever assistant secretary for space policy, said that the goal was to “bring down” data secrecy amidst concerns that the U.S. government has over-classified all space-related programs. Government watchdog groups have warned that the overuse of SAPs has resulted in compartmentalization that limits access to only a few individuals.
Instead of protecting the American people, the over-classification is actually harming the ability to convey the growing space threats from potential adversaries. This is impacting what lawmakers know, as well as allied/partner nations and even the U.S. public. This has further hampered cooperation with industry and foreign partners.
Not So Beautiful Balloon
The timing of this announcement by Plumb comes just days after the United States Air Force shot down a number of balloons that were suspected of being Chinese in origin. The White House has suggested the balloons were privately owned, but it has also come as a surprise to many that such programs even exist.
It spurred a wave of questions by the media – as well as individuals on social media – about what else we don’t know.
Space The Unknown Frontier
Plumb has further focused on addressing over-classification in order to enable the Pentagon to better make use of the “asymmetric advantage” provided by U.S. allies with space capabilities, Breaking Defense also reported.
It was a year ago that the United States joins Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom in the joint release of the “Combined Space Operations (CSpO) Vision 2031.” This was an initiative to address the overarching need to encourage responsible use of space, recognizing challenges to space sustainability, threats presented by technological advances, and the increasingly comprehensive and aggressive counter-space programs of other nation-states.
Moreover, the “CSpO Vision 2031” outlined the initiative’s overarching purpose and highlights its guiding principles, including freedom of use of space, responsible and sustainable use of space, partnering while recognizing sovereignty, and upholding international law.
Plumb suggested the group has worked on figuring out how to share crucial information – and noted that “the thing that limits us is over-classification of information.”
One point that Plumb also wanted to make sure is that reigning in SAP is about allowing people with clearance to one specific SAP program could also be clear into related programs. In addition, it could include “cross-level” security clearances of allied personnel to U.S. equivalents.
“A lot of folks think of classification: ‘Oh, we’re going to declassify things so that they’re unclassified,'” Plumb added. “I’m almost never talking about that.”