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Obama Administration Weighs Nixing ‘Confidential’ Classification

The nation's top intelligence official is considering letting spy agencies drop the lowest level of classification, "confidential," in an effort to shrink the gusher of secret documents flowing out of their offices.

The proposal by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, comes amid a simmering controversy over classified information that found its way on to the home email system used by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

Related: President Obama Says Evidence, Not Politics, Dictates FBI's Review of Hillary Clinton Emails

But Clapper's proposal would have little bearing on the Clinton matter, because it would only apply to the intelligence community, not the State Department, said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists who first called attention to it.

Spy agencies "don't use it much anyway," Aftergood said of the "confidential" label. That's in contrast to the State Department, which frequently applies it to cable traffic containing sensitive foreign government information that isn't intelligence-related.

Still, Aftergood said, it's significant that Clapper is putting his authority behind trying to reduce U.S. government secrets.

"I think he has come around to believing that greater disclosure is necessary for health of the intelligence enterprise," Aftergood told NBC News. "I think he feels the need to counter the wave of cynicism that is out there."

In a memorandum sent last month to directors of the CIA and four other intelligence agencies, Clapper told them to "to take a leading role in reducing targeted classification activities."

Image: James Clapper
While National Intelligence Director James Clapper's request for FISA approval was declassified, the court's actual ruling wasn't. Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file

As part of the review, he asked them to "comment on whether the CONFIDENTIAL classification level can be eliminated from your agencies' guides and the negative impacts this might have on mission success."

Doing that, he said, "could promote transparency," by focusing on material "that would cause significant and demonstrable harm to national security if improperly released."

The main levels above confidential are "secret," and "top secret." There are other subcategories.

The United Kingdom eliminated "confidential" in 2014 without negative impact, he noted.

Related: Condoleezza Rice Aides, Colin Powell Also Got Classified Info on Personal Emails

President Obama appeared to speak to that issue when he said on Fox News Sunday, "There's stuff that is really `top-secret,' top-secret, and there's stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state, that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source."

But critics pointed out that the Obama Justice Department has not appeared to have taken that view as it has prosecuted a record number of people in classified leaks cases.