Classification is the process of identifying information that can and must be withheld from public disclosure in the interest of national security. Since 2004, Diana Hollis has worked in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Classification Office, where she helps employees navigate the sometimes blurry lines between what information is OK to share and what’s not. To do this, Hollis and her team use an array of federal classification guides—and plenty of critical thinking.
“It should be in the DNA of everybody who works up here to be mindful that our mission is classified,” Hollis says. “We need people to really dig into what they’re reading, what they’re seeing. What information is being conveyed and is that information sensitive? It’s an intellectually and technically challenging endeavor.”
Despite being among the most essential jobs at Los Alamos, being a classification analyst is often tedious and thankless. In 2019, the Laboratory was suffering from a loss of classification experts. Hollis herself was on the cusp of contributing to that loss—she was about to retire—when she reconsidered. “I felt a profound responsibility to communicate what I knew to be an impending classification crisis before I retired,” she explains.
She took the opportunity at the annual gathering of the Lab’s derivative classifiers—which she knew was attended by senior Lab leaders—to deliver a stark warning: The Lab was losing classification expertise faster than it was possible to attain and retain. Hollis held up a Lab-published book and one of the Lab’s magazines and said, “You don’t get to publish these without experts in classification. It’s impossible.”
Thankfully, she says, “my message was received in the manner it was delivered.” Hollis was chosen to head the Office of Classification. She hired a team of multidisciplinary scientists and engineers who share her passion for their work as classification experts. “I knew what the problem was,” Hollis says. “We’d lost our seat at the table in the greater classification community across the nuclear security enterprise, across the government really,” she says. “We needed to get Los Alamos back at the table. And we needed to be the experts that we are.”
Today, Hollis has built a team of devoted analysts, each of whom has expertise in at least one classified mission program (including materials science; nuclear, chemical, and mechanical engineering; and computer science) and the agility and curiosity to learn about the others. “An excellent classification program can only happen with excellent classification analysts,” she says. “Those are very highly educated and experienced technical experts who can check their egos at the door.”
Hollis works collaboratively with the team on challenging classification matters. “The magic that happens when we all sit around a big table and discuss the issue at hand from these varying technical perspectives in a variety of communication styles is invigorating,” she says.
Consistency across the enterprise
In addition to heading the Classification Office, Hollis is also the Lab’s classification officer, which is a credential granted from the Department of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration Offices of Classification. The role gives her the reins to strengthen classification practices across the Lab, including recruiting and retaining derivative classifiers (volunteer subject matter experts across the Laboratory who serve as the first line of defense in identifying classified information as it is generated) and educating all Lab employees through various trainings.
“We’ve been successful with training, with getting the message out that we’re not the police,” she says. “If employees come to us early and often with questions, we can carve that safe-haven path that protects information.”
Hollis’ approach is becoming the standard across the entire nuclear security enterprise. “The way Diana has gone about building her team and her stature as an expert have caught the attention of the DOE Office of Classification,” says Ken Quintana, a program manager helping her execute her vision.
In a recent assessment of the Los Alamos program, the DOE Office of Classification recognized the Lab’s new training approach for derivative classifiers as a best practice within the nuclear security enterprise and later asked Los Alamos to present its training model to all DOE classification officers at their annual Technical Program Review. Since then, classification officers from other laboratories have requested help from Los Alamos with their training of derivative classifiers and classification analysts; some sites are even planning to have their employees shadow the Lab’s analysts.
In October 2022, Hollis was chosen by classification officers across the nation to chair the annual Weapons Complex Classification Conference, during which classification experts discuss issues and best practices. “Today’s national security threats are far more complex than they were when I started my classification career,” Hollis says. “Complex threats mean complex classification.” ★