Cpl. Isaiah Donaldson speaks to Assistant Defense Secretary for Space Policy John Plumb during a tour of the Downey Responder Training Facility at Stump Neck Annex, Md., June 28, 2023.

Cpl. Isaiah Donaldson speaks to Assistant Defense Secretary for Space Policy John Plumb during a tour of the Downey Responder Training Facility at Stump Neck Annex, Md., June 28, 2023. U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Angel Ponce

Some secret military programs are getting a little less secret

New classification guidance aims to streamline operations within the Pentagon and with foreign partners.

The Pentagon wants to make some of its space-related programs and activities less secret, in a bid to make daily operations easier. The memo detailing how is, well, classified. 

“I’m quite happy to say that Deputy Defense Secretary [Kathleen] Hicks recently signed a memo that removed legacy classification barriers that have inhibited our ability to collaborate across the U.S. government and also with issues related to space,” John Plumb, the Pentagon’s top space policy official, told reporters Wednesday. “That will pay dividends over time.”

Plumb said the classified document, which was signed at the end of 2023, “completely rewrites” internal guidance that was decades old. 

The new guidance covers all levels of secrecy, including unclassified, and acknowledges “vast changes in publicly available information on space and space programs since the last classification guidance,” a DOD spokesperson told Defense One via email. 

It also establishes “minimum classifications to a various number of things, which will then allow services to examine their own programs” and determine whether a program should be a special access program, or SAP. 

“Special access programs have additional controls which make it very difficult to talk back and forth even between components,” Plumb said. “Anything we can bring from a SAP level to a top-secret level, for example, [provides] massive value to the warfighter, massive value to the department.”

Congress has oversight of special access programs, which are reserved for some of the nation’s most sensitive information, tech, operations, and research. 

The top-secret label applies to information that could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security if disclosed without authorization, while information classified as secret could cause “serious damage” if improperly disclosed, according to a 2023 Congressional Research Service report on the rules for protecting classified materials. Storing top-secret or secret classified data requires inspections and intrusion detection systems. That standard is even higher to protect SAP and sensitive compartmented information, the report states.  

Overclassification has been a longstanding problem across the U.S. government. Efforts to fix it have been complicated by high-profile intelligence breaches and calls to “tighten” access to classified data and better detect insider threats. 

The Pentagon has worked in recent years to make it easier for contractors to access material needed to do everyday work. For example, DOD launched a pilot program in 2021 to increase contractors’ access to special access programs to improve technological innovation. 

Plumb said the bar to designate a SAP should be higher.

“Policy is not the only reason to hide something in a SAP program. There has to be technical aspects to it,” Plumb said. “I’m concerned about…reducing the classification of things that are over-classified to the point where it hampers our ability to get work done or hampers the ability of the warfighter to do their mission.” 

Demoting some SAP programs to top secret would ease communication across various Defense Department IT systems—and eventually allow the U.S. to share more information with allies and partners, Plumb said. 

The plan is to brief some allies and partners on the changes, he said.