How To Solve Overclassification: Give Government Departments A Limited Annual 'Secrecy Budget'

from the kicking-the-habit dept

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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  1.  
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    Marak, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 3:56am

    A surprisingly good idea! Shame i cant see it being enacted though.

     

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  2.  
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    Ninja (profile), Aug 8th, 2013 @ 3:58am

    We would still fall in the same issue: Govt controls the money, Govt controls the "classification budget", Govt controls... All. It's a great initiative but if the Govt itself is unwilling no amount of restrictions will suffice. See the Constitution and the latest abuses.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 4:11am

    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.

    This either turns into an expensive bureaucracy to allocate and monitor the budget, paid for by the cost of using the secret stamps, or the budget is virtual and can be set at any level.
    I would bet on the first option, and the resulting bureaucracy would lobby for an increased secrets budget so that it could grow itself.

     

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  4.  
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    Rob, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 5:14am

    I was thinking something along these lines last week, but extended it slightly.

    Under my plan, the budget (in terms of count, not $) is "0". For every document classified, one must be declassified. It would take a while to get to a decent steady state, but it would eventually happen.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 5:29am

    AH, the overuse of free goods.

    For example, OOTB is overusing air

     

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  6.  
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    Nate, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 5:33am

    How long until the secrecy budget itself is classified as secret?

     

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  7.  
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    RyanNerd (profile), Aug 8th, 2013 @ 5:45am

    Well, we all should remember Watergate

    This whole overclassification thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I consider myself a student of history and still remember Nixon claiming that recorded conversations at the White House could not be revealed because it would threaten the nation's security.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 5:59am

    But if the secrecy budget doesn't actually cost anything and is just a made up value it won't do anything. At the end of the year they'll come in over their secrecy budget and then what? Vicious finger wagging?

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:00am

    Re:

    This is exactly how it would go down.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:01am

    40+ years dealing with classified info all the way from "Confidential" all the way up to several levels beyond "Top Secret". Not once did I ever see a "classification budget" (unless it comprises security safes and periodic inventories), nor did I ever see system designed to incentivize classifying information except in the clearest of circumstances. If anything, the inventory procedures for classified information served as a strong disincentive, thus limiting classification those circumstances where it truly should apply. Importantly, most of what I dealt with involved upcoming military operations, as well as R&D for new technologies and their applications. My point is simply that there does exist a need for document security via classification, but the classification system can easily start to break down when placed in the hands of persons who hold classification authority and who haven't a clue what should and what should not be classified. CYA is never an acceptable excuse, and brings some measure of disrespect to an important system.

     

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  11.  
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    Dan (profile), Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:05am

    Not monetary, but numbered

    Don't charge money, make it a numerical quota. Uncle Sam gets so many this year and the rest for the year are unclassified. The first year they'll blow the quota in Jan., then they will learn they need to keep a few in reserve, just in case.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:12am

    Re:

    But at least it's nicely warmed when he's done with it.

     

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  13.  
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    Oblate (profile), Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:15am

    Re:

    The amount of time will be classified as secret.

    The amount of 'secret budget' used/remaining/overdrawn will be classified as secret.

    The identities of those using and monitoring the budget will be classified as secret.

    All other details of the program will be classified as secret.

    The only thing that won't be secret is that there is a problem with overuse of secrecy.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:34am

    Re:

    40+ years dealing with classified info all the way from "Confidential" all the way up to several levels beyond "Top Secret". Not once did I ever see a "classification budget" (unless it comprises security safes and periodic inventories), nor did I ever see system designed to incentivize classifying information except in the clearest of circumstances. If anything, the inventory procedures for classified information served as a strong disincentive, thus limiting classification those circumstances where it truly should apply. Importantly, most of what I dealt with involved upcoming military operations, as well as R&D for new technologies and their applications. My point is simply that there does exist a need for document security via classification, but the classification system can easily start to break down when placed in the hands of persons who hold classification authority and who haven't a clue what should and what should not be classified. CYA is never an acceptable excuse, and brings some measure of disrespect to an important system.

    Which in my mind, raises the question of whether this is a digital issue. If over-classification was previously limited by the pain-in-the-ass factor, was this balance radically shifted by the shift to electronic documents? In a nutshell, has the digital era made the procedures for classifying too efficient?

    If so, this might be a problem that needs both a political and a technical solution. A "budget" might indirectly address the technical issues, but I gather previous commentators are sceptical about the political aspects....

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 6:34am

    Re:

    A far more relevant system, but it is not gonna happen since the scope has grown at incredible rates in the past, thus the system will force information from the past to be declassified at an accellerated pace. Also, I am not sure how much papertrail they kept in the past and from the past...

     

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  16.  
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    Jeff in Calgary, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 7:01am

    Only SECRET

    So true. And with so much stuff over classified, people get desensitized. I have heard Army employees say "It is only SECRET", implying that they didn't really have to be careful with the information.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 7:14am

    Re: Re:

    It absolutely has. SIPRNet being overused is one of the primary conclusions from Bradley Mannning's leak. Because it's implemented at a TCP/IP level it's often much easier to just stay in SIPRNet for everything and sort out distribution labels as you go.

     

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    Mike-2 Alpha (profile), Aug 8th, 2013 @ 9:21am

    Re: Not monetary, but numbered

    The problem is that the secrecy budget will go the way of the fiscal budget. Rather than staying within the number of classifications allotted them, they will leave themselves a method by which they can go overbudget "for emergencies". It will likely involve approval from a higher authority, but that approval process will quickly devolve into being the rubber stamp they use to sign their blank cheques.

    Meanwhile, a solution that was supposed to be major surgery becomes nothing more than a band aid they can point to and say "look! We did something! We solved the problem!"

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 9:07pm

    Not Gonna happen .. the Lobbyists would take up the slack .. but If you divided the 21 billion they're using to built the data center amongst the US citizens .. we could all buy tanks and terrorism wouldn't exist :)~

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 9:07pm

    Not Gonna happen .. the Lobbyists would take up the slack .. but If you divided the 21 billion they're using to build the data center amongst the US citizens .. we could all buy tanks and terrorism wouldn't exist :)~

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    Anonymouse, Aug 8th, 2013 @ 11:18pm

    Maybe the scenario should be reversed, no extra budget, but for every document to be classified it would cost the relevant department say US$ 1000.00 off their budget and the limit of "classification costs" may not exceed more than say 5% of the relevant departments budget....

     

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