Editorial Board

Government Transparency Isn’t About 200-Year-Old Books: View

In June, the National Security Agency announced that it had declassified 50,000 pages of historic documents. The action, the highly secretive spy agency said in a press release, was proof of its commitment to meeting a goal President Barack Obama outlined on his first day in office: “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

Yet instead of ushering in a new era of transparency, the NSA’s disclosure inadvertently provided further evidence of just how dysfunctional the U.S. way of secrecy remains. Of the three items highlighted by the intelligence agency, Exhibit A was a German treatise on cryptography that was published in 1809 and had been classified since it was seized by allied forces during World War II. Adding to the absurdity, “Kryptographik Lehrbuch der Geheimschreibekunst” had long been in the public domain and was available on Google Books to anyone with Internet access.

To be sure, this example verges on satire, but it drives home the glacial pace at which the government is carrying out a needed reform that the president has identified as a priority for his administration.

Two years after Obama issued an executive order requiring all government agencies to review by June 2012 their guidelines for keeping information under wraps, compliance has been spotty at best. In its most recent report to the president, the Information Security Oversight Office, which manages the classification system, said only 19 of 41 government agencies had devised new rules.

23% Increase

Worse, the overseer found that the number of classified documents actually increased in the 2010 fiscal year. It reported that “original classification decisions” -- first-time determinations to withhold information -- rose 22.6 percent from 2009, to 224,734. Meanwhile, “derivative classification decisions,” which involve documents that reproduce or otherwise make use of already classified material, increased 40 percent, to a staggering 76 million. Perhaps these numbers aren’t all that surprising when one considers that 4.2 million people, both in government and among contractors, now hold security clearances that allow them to handle classified documents, according to the director of national intelligence.

There are obvious reasons to fix this broken system. The first is that it keeps from the public information that it has every right to know, an erosion of our democratic principles. The second is that it is, in fact, damaging to national security. As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, some intelligence agencies had valuable information before the attacks that they couldn’t or wouldn’t share.

There also is a very practical reason to force an overhaul: The system is outrageously expensive and inefficient. The Information Security Oversight Office estimated that security classification cost the government $10.2 billion for fiscal 2010, up 15 percent from the previous year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as it excludes spending by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the NSA, whose budgets are classified.

There is a consensus in government, from the president down, that the system is wasteful. Indeed, top officials have said that, at most, 50 percent of the material that is classified needs to be withheld for legitimate national security reasons.

Obama should push his administration to meet his 2012 deadline for a full revision of the system. He also should stay on top of the National Declassification Center, which was created by his executive order to handle within four years a 400 million-page backlog of documents that are eligible to be made public.

Bad Incentives

That won’t be enough. The president should also examine the recommendations of a recent report on overclassification by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Its remedies are centered on the central diagnosis that the current system’s incentives are skewed. There is no penalty for over-zealous classification and there are no rewards for challenging improper decisions.

The report offers practical and immediate fixes: Officials would be required to fill out an electronic form explaining the reasons for a decision to classify a document; the inspector general of each agency would carry out “spot audits” of classification decisions and unsatisfactory results would result in mandatory escalating consequences; agencies would be required to spend at least 8 percent of their security classification budget on training; the millions of people who are accredited to conduct “derivative classifications” would be held harmless if they failed to classify information whose value is ambiguous; and a procedure would be put in place to allow people with clearances to challenge classification decisions anonymously and cash awards would be given to those whose challenges were successful.

The document dumps by were an object lesson in the pathologies of overclassification. The fact that an Army private with a security clearance is alleged to have downloaded vast amounts of supposedly secret information should raise urgent questions about what information we deem necessary to withhold and who gets to see it.

As Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, a watchdog group in Washington, puts it: “Right now, we have low fences around vast prairies of government secrets, when what we need are high fences around small graveyards of real secrets.” From day one President Obama had the right idea, fence-wise -- now he needs to follow through and ensure that the agencies do their jobs.