Even Officials In The Intelligence Community Are Recognizing The Dangers Of Over-Classification

from the apparently-we-can't-trust-the-people-that-have-granted-the-government-this-p dept

The federal government has a problem with secrecy. Well, actually it doesn’t have a problem with secrecy, per se. That’s often considered a feature, not a bug. But federal law says the government shouldn’t have so much secrecy, what with the FOIA being in operation. And yet, the government feels compelled to keep secrets from its biggest employer: the US taxpayers.

Over-classification remains a problem. It has been a problem ever since long before a government contractor went rogue with a massive stash of NSA documents, showing that many of the government’s secrets should have been shared or, at the very least, more widely discussed as the government turned 9/11 into a constitutional bypass on the information superhighway.

Since then, efforts have been made to dial back the government’s proclivity for classifying documents that pose no threat to government operations and/or government security. In fact, the argument has been made (rather convincingly) that over-classification is counterproductive. It’s more likely to result in the exposure of so-called secrets rather than secure the blanket-exemption-formality that keeps secrets from the general public.

Efforts have been made to counteract this overwhelming desire to keep the public locked out of discussions about government activities. These efforts have mostly failed. And that has mainly been due to vague and frequent invocations of national security concerns, which allow legislators and federal judges to shut off their brains and hammer the [REDACT] button repeatedly.

But ignoring the problem hasn’t made the problem go away, no matter how many billions the federal government refuses to throw at the problem. Over-classification still stands between the public and information it should have access to. And it stands between federal agencies and efficient use of tax dollars. The federal government generates petabytes of data every month. And far too often, the agencies generating the data decide it’s no one’s business but their own.

It’s not just legislators noting the widening gap between the government’s massive stockpiles of data and the public’s ability to access them. It’s also those generating the most massive stashes of bits and bytes, as the Washington Post points out, using the words of an Intelligence Community official.

The U.S. government is drowning in its own secrets. Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, recently wrote to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) that “deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner.” The same conclusions have been drawn by the senators and many others for a long time.

As this letter hints at, over-classification doesn’t just affect the great unwashed whose power is generally considered to be far too limited to change things. It also affects agencies and the entities that oversee the agencies — the latter of which are asked to engage in oversight while being locked out of the information they need to perform this task.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Intelligence Community recognizes it’s part of the problem. But this is just one person in the IC. It’s unlikely every official feels this way.

The government is working towards a solution, but its work is being performed at the speed of government — something further hampered by the back-and-forth of periodic regime changes and their alternating ideas about how much transparency the government owes to its patrons.

The IC letter writer almost sees a silver lining in the nearly opaque cloud enveloping agencies involved in national security efforts.

So far, Ms. Haines said, current priorities and resources for fixing the classification systems “are simply not sufficient.” The National Security Council is working on a revised presidential executive order governing classified information, and we hope the White House will come up with an ambitious blueprint for modernization.

The silver lining is “so far,” and the efforts being made elsewhere to change things. The rest of the non-lining is far less silver: the resources aren’t sufficient and the National Security Council is grinding bureaucratic gears by working with the administration to change things. If it doesn’t happen soon, changes will be at the discretion of the next administration. And the next administration may no longer feel streamlining declassification is a priority, putting projects that have been in the on-again, off-again works since Snowden’s exposes on the back burner yet again.

Our government will never likely feel Americans can be trusted with information about the programs their tax dollars pay for. But perhaps a little more momentum — this time propelled by something within the Intelligence Community — will prompt some incremental changes that may eventually snowball into actual transparency and accountability.

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Comments on “Even Officials In The Intelligence Community Are Recognizing The Dangers Of Over-Classification”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Do you want another Snowden? That's how you get one

When the government decides that the default is to shut the public out and only hand out information when it absolutely has to that is how you get whistleblowers and leakers, people who’ve seen a system that has no interest in any sort of transparency that isn’t forced by a lawsuit and as a result when they see something they think is off they don’t report it to superiors they rightly expect will just bury it but make it public, potentially revealing far more than would have been exposed had the government done it itself.

Adding to the problems when the government is so resistant to being open with the public it makes it a lot harder for the public to trust it, which is problematic at the best of times but can be far more dire should(and I’m just spinning hypotheticals here) a situation arise wherein it’s really important for the public to feel they can trust the government, both so they don’t have to scramble to gain that trust in the moment and to make it harder for opportunistic grifters to exploit a reasonable distrust for their own gain.

Whether from pure self interest and/or for the sake of the public the government is much better off defaulting to transparency and keeping secrecy only to when they really need it, because while it may benefit them in the short-term to keep everyone in the dark the cost of that is one that just keeps adding up and getting worse the longer it goes on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The government has been over-classifying for more than 50 years. 90% is to hide info from the USA public, not the GRU.

Effectively, there is no difference. Once a secret is known by "the American Public" it is also known by China, Russia, N Korea, etc.

So I find it a little disingenuous to say that "90% is to hide from the USA public" because there is no such picking and choosing. As someone who has worked with lots of classified data, I would argue that 99.999+% of classified information is exceedingly tedious stuff that the American public would never care about: flight plans, IR signature detections, computer system identification and vulnerabilities, etc.

All of that information WOULD be harmful to national security, betraying our technological capabilities or exposing vulnerabilities. It would also be of no interest to the general public, and shouldn’t be exposed even if the public wanted it.

There are exceptions of course. But I hardly agree that over-classification is the root cause of the problem.

Another Kevin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Effectively, there is no difference. Once a secret is known by "the American Public" it is also known by China, Russia, N Korea, etc.

The concern is more over the secrets that are known to China, Russia, North Korea, and whoever your bogeyman-du-jour is, and are still kept from the American public. I’m betting that’s most classified information.

(There’s also the stuff that’s classified simply because the culture in the agencies is that if it isn’t highly classified, it can’t possibly be important, because nothing of any real importance ever happens in the white world.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 1 simple reason

However, if you under-classify something, you risk a decade or two in prison.

This isn’t true.

This is known as a data spill, and in actual fact the punishment is usually quite mild. Typically a verbal warning, unless infractions are repeated. Then it would escalate because it would eventually become willful negligence.

The only time someone would actually get thrown in prison is if the person willfully and knowingly released classified information to someone who should not have had it. Then it turns from "data spill" to "espionage" and punishments are logically more severe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 1 simple reason

He’s definitely exaggerating but the overall point holds. At the individual level, where most classification decisions are made, there is basically zero issue with or repercussions for over classifying something.

However, under classifying something can be a major issue and headache. Once somebody goes thru one inadvertent disclosure it’s usually not something they want to ever go thru again. It can lead to negative reviews, loss of clearance, embarrassment, termination (would be rare for a first offense), etc.

The definitions (e.g., secret vs top secret) and classification guidance can also be pretty vague and non-specific. Combined with the above, it’s very easy for individuals to over classify something and once that’s placed on something, it sticks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: 1 simple reason

Edward Snowden is known for telling "America" (and everyone else) about NSA surveillance, but he is less well known for dumping terabytes of other highly classified data to Russia. Data which had nothing whatsoever to do with human rights. Like it or not, his actions did indeed cost American lives, and helping Russia is certainly not a point in his favor if we are discussing his merits as a humanitarian…

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