Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Blog

Leaks of classified information have become a prominent issue this election season. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have been decrying these leaks as a threat to national security and regularly accuse their opponents of leaking information for political gain. All the talk of protecting our nation’s secrets has largely missed the point that the U.S. government’s system of classification needs drastic rethinking and fixing.

The Information Security and Oversight Office (ISOO) is a government agency that rarely makes the news, yet its recently published annual report contained some disturbing statistics. ISOO oversees the government’s classification system and its latest report reveals that there were 92 million decisions to classify information in fiscal year 2011. This number represents a 20 percent increase from 2010, itself a 40 percent increase from 2009. The number of classification decisions does not tell the whole story, as it could be either the product of more information-sharing between agencies or simply greater secrecy. Statistics contained in the report pertaining to the process of mandatory declassification review (MDR) paint a better picture. MDR requests allow members of the public to challenge a document’s classification, thus the success rate of these requests provides an idea of how much information is being erroneously classified. The 2011 ISOO report reveals that in approximately nine out of ten cases, agencies that received MDR requests ended up releasing all or part of the document. This suggests that problems of over-classification and needless secrecy are rampant.

Defenders of our classification system say that more decisions made to classify information constitute erring on the side of safety. This argument ignores the many other motivations government officials have for classification, as well the consequences of over-classification. Some officials are too busy to make a careful determination of whether a piece of information or a communication truly needs to be classified.  Classification can be used by government employees to enhance their own status, protect their turf, or hide their misconduct. Fear of incurring penalties for mistakenly disclosing sensitive information serves as a powerful incentive to classify, whereas there is little or no countervailing disincentive to prevent erroneous classification.

Ironically, those who decry leaks of classified material as threats to our safety fail to grasp how over-classification actually threatens national security. Over-classification limits the sharing of information among officials and agencies, which in turn limits our government's ability to understand and link data about security threats. It also makes leaks more likely, as rampant specious classification erodes respect for the classification system among public servants and contractors with access to privileged information. On a more basic level, over-classification is a serious problem for government accountability. While many needlessly classified documents revealing waste and misconduct do eventually see the light of day, there are many that remain behind a veil of secrecy.

President Obama has shown some indication that he understands the problem. In 2009, he issued an executive order that bolstered training requirements, prohibited indefinite classification, and directed officials to refrain from classifying when in doubt. Two years later, it is clear the changes do not go far enough. Introducing real accountability into our system of classification would bring down leaks, enhance information sharing, and contribute to an overall more accountable government.

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