The Government Has Been Binging On Classification. Senators Say It's Time To Start Purging.

from the affected-agencies:-hey-if-it's-not-working-don't-fix-it dept

Senators Ron Wyden and Jerry Moran have published an op-ed at Just Security detailing the government’s overuse of classification (and distaste for declassification) — a practice that uses our tax dollars to keep secrets from us. Overclassification is a problem. It has been a problem for decades, but it keeps getting worse. Multiple government agencies spend billions every year marking things “classified” and then forgetting the documents they’ve classified still exist.

Under the current system, costly resources are used to hold on to records that no longer require classification resulting in an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars. The cost of the government’s classification system now exceeds $18 billion annually. Additionally, when records are kept classified for reasons that have nothing to do with national security, historians, journalists, public watchdogs and all Americans are denied their right to research historical events or examine the actions of their government to hold it accountable. As the line between classification for national security and pointless secrecy is blurred, public trust in government erodes.

What should be classified? That’s anyone’s guess. Most federal agencies err on the side of caution/obfuscation. Back when he was still president, Barack Obama tried to explain this in layman’s terms. Unfortunately, his explanation — handed out after some selective prosecution by the DOJ — was not the paragon of clarity… although it did inform taxpaying laymen the government alone would decide what the public gets to see.

“There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” the president said.

Both are still classified. In some cases, the sharing of classified information is forgiven. In other cases, it’s a prosecution. But the underlying fact remains: the government classifies too much stuff too often. The op-ed notes the Information Security Oversight Office has warned of a “deluge” of classified info in the federal document pipeline. What’s already a catastrophe will become cataclysmic as more documents are created more often and classified more frequently.

If it costs us $18 billion a year just to classify documents, imagine the cost of declassifying info once it reaches its expiration date. At this point, the federal government is still saving us a few bucks by ignoring the stockpile of documents slated for declassification. This isn’t making the public any more knowledgeable, but it is, in its own way, somewhat efficient.

The Senators say it’s time for the declassification system to be overhauled and modernized. Sooner would be better, considering the “deluge” that’s worrying the ISOO. They aren’t just complaining about an ongoing — and growing — problem. The two Senators actually want to do something about it.

Records can be “tagged” so that when information is no longer suitable for classification, the records which include that information are easily identified for release. AI and machine learning can be used to find buried records appropriate for declassification. And when it is time to declassify records that include information from multiple government agencies, those agencies can be connected electronically rather than having to rely on couriers physically walking paper copies around Washington.

But will Congress or whatever president is in office like this solution? The government likes its secrets. So do its many employees, especially the powerful ones who don’t like embarrassing or horrifying information coming to light, even if it’s years after the fact. But they have an obligation to the public to be more open about the things they’re doing — and have done — with the implicit blessing of taxpayers via their tax dollars.

Thanks to op-eds like these, we’re aware we’re paying $18 billion a year to have information hidden from us, sometimes for decades. And we know the government’s obligations to the public are being ignored by government agencies more willing to throw money at classifying documents than digging through their archives for stuff that can be released. This needs to change. The fix might not be easy or cheap, but ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away.

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Comments on “The Government Has Been Binging On Classification. Senators Say It's Time To Start Purging.”

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9 Comments
Upstream (profile) says:

Classification has been weaponized

Classification of documents is now being done more to cover up evidence of government wrongdoing and to avoid FOIA requests than to further national security interests. Anyone revealing "classified" evidence of government wrongdoing is no longer just someone leaking embarrassing, or possibly incriminating, information, but is now someone who can be prosecuted for treason. The "national security" rationale is typically just a line of boilerplate BS.

Another Kevin (profile) says:

Classification as corporate politics

The biggest single contributing factor to overclassification is that among the military contractors, it’s a way to get management attention (and funding) for your project. There’s a belief there that "if it were any good, we’d want it for ourselves exclusively, and so it would be secret."

Often the only sensitive aspect to the program is precisely which model of ship or aircraft it’s going into, and most people working on it neither know nor care. If you’re working to optimize performance of an engine exhaust nozzle or a radar front end, it’s actually pretty irrelevant whose wing the engine will fly on or what craft will be carrying the radar.

Anonymous Coward says:

AI and machine learning can be used to find buried records appropriate for declassification.

Do you want Skynet? Because this is how you get Skynet. Of all the things to put a potentially self-aware machine in charge of. It’ll see humans as a bunch of lying, obfuscating, conniving, weirdos who hide the most innocuous things, and those which have no rational reason to be hidden, among the few things which are truly security sensitive, and facts most foul which the government wishes never to see the light of day.

Oh wait. Forget i said anything.

kag (profile) says:

Conspiracy?

Wow, amazing to read all of the conspiracy theories in this post. It’s quite simple, if someone is unsure and overclassifies, noone blinks an eye. If you underclassify, you face weeks or months of nightmarish critiques. Most of this is not really cut and dry as the rules are vague. It would be impossible to define every scenario in a classification guide.

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