A high-level committee formed last year by the Union government to look into provisions of Official Secrets Act (OSA) in light of the Right to Information (RTI) Act may soon suggest to stakeholder ministries that OSA remains unchanged and that, instead, excessive secrecy be done away with by relaxing criteria for classifying information.
According to government sources, the panel is likely to meet within a fortnight and seek feedback from stakeholder ministries on revising classification criteria that is decided in accordance with Departmental Security Instructions issued by the Home Ministry.
“There is no ambiguity on how OSA and RTI square up. According to the RTI Act, 2005, in case of a clash with the OSA, public interest will prevail. There is no problem with the current form of OSA and it is a necessary legislation. The real issue is rigid classification of information which leads to unnecessary secrecy,” said a government source.
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According to Section 8(2) of RTI Act, “Notwithstanding anything in Official Secrets Act, 1923, nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with subsection 8(1) of RTI Act, a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”
“At the next meeting of the panel, the response of all stakeholder ministries will be sought on relaxing criteria for classification of secret information while being careful not to compromise national security,” the source said.
The committee to look into OSA, a law enacted by the British in 1923, was set up in February 2015. It comprises the Law Secretary, the Home Secretary and Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training.
Depending on the level of sensitivity of the information and implications of its disclosure for national security, the four types of classification are ‘Top Secret’, ‘Secret’, ‘Confidential’ and ‘Restricted’. ‘Top Secret’ is for information the unauthorised disclosure of which could be expected to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security or national interest. This category is reserved for the nation’s closest secrets. ‘Secret’ is for information whose disclosure may cause “serious damage” to national security or national interest or serious embarrassment to the government. It is used for “highly important matters” and is the highest classification normally used.
“Confidential” is for information that might cause “damage” to national security, be prejudicial to national interest and might embarrass the government. “Restricted” is applied to information meant only for official use, which is not to be published or communicated to any person except for official purposes.
Documents that do not require security classification are regarded as ‘Unclassified’. ‘Top Secret’ files do not travel below the Joint Secretary level; ‘Secret’ files do not go below the Under Secretary level.
During UPA-I, the second Administrative Reforms Commission recommended repealing of the Official Secrets Act, but the government did not accept it.