Recently we noted that "overclassification
" of sensitive material actually leads to more secrets being revealed. The New York Times has published an interesting article that picks up on this theme, and gives the following concrete example of how overclassification has been harmful to the US
Consider the least covert secret program in the American arsenal: drones. Every drone attack in Pakistan and Yemen made the local news, and Twitter, in hours. Often those reports were accompanied by huge exaggerations about civilian casualties. But the American ambassador in Pakistan was forced to let those claims go unanswered, because the program was classified. "We did far more damage to our national security pretending we knew nothing," one senior American official said in frustration, "than if we had owned up to them and said, 'Here's a list of terrorists we just put out of action.' "
It also reports on an intriguing suggestion for solving this problem, which comes from Herb Lin, a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences:
"The incentives to classify information are many, and the incentives to refrain from classifying it are few," he noted recently, adding that he was speaking just for himself. "Classifying information doesn't incur any monetary cost for the classifier, and any economist will tell you that a free good will be overused."
So he proposes that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies should be given a budget, and every time a "top secret" stamp is used, it should be charged against that budget.
As well as being a practical suggestion that is easy to implement, Lin's approach has the huge virtue that the "secrecy budget" can be adjusted over time. That offers the hope that the US government's present addiction to over-classifying material could be gradually scaled back to something approaching sensible levels of secrecy.
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