Government Agencies Apparently Not Interested In Following Congressional Directives On Overclassification

from the you-literally-couldn't-pay-us-enough-to-do-our-jobs dept

I'm not sure what this says about government transparency. Maybe it doesn't say anything useful. Maybe it's just the mixed signals we can expect from agencies only willing to make the most minimal transparency efforts. Or maybe it says something about the momentum of even slowly-moving large objects. A bureaucracy has a large turning radius and asking it to suddenly change its ways means you have to lower your expectations as to how "suddenly" should be defined. Whatever it says, it's nothing good.

Overclassification is a government-wide problem. Legislation has been passed to fix it. While the government expects the private sector to get right on it when laws are passed, it obviously cuts itself a lot more slack when faced with internal legislative redirection.

Recognizing the threat posed by over-classification, Congress passed legislation in 2010 to counter the pervasive problem of bureaucrats making benign government records secret. One of the most highlighted provisions of the Reducing Over-Classification Act (ROCA) was a new tool for agencies: cash incentives for employees who accurately classify (and declassify) documents.

Congress hoped that by offering a proverbial carrot to the line-level employees making initial classification decisions within federal agencies, it could increase transparency and allow greater information sharing between federal agencies and local law enforcement.

Not even the dangling of cash money can push agencies towards more transparency, as the EFF's Dave Maass and Aaron Mackey report.

Based on the FOIA responses EFF has received, it does not appear that a single federal agency with the power to classify documents has ever taken advantage of ROCA’s cash incentives program. EFF’s FOIA request sought a variety of records related to the ROCA incentive program, including guidelines for issuing bonuses and the amount of bonuses given out.

Of the agencies we queried, 16 agencies responded that they either had no responsive records or that they do not operate a ROCA incentive program. Three other agencies denied our request, while the remaining eight have yet to provide a determination.

Congress has declared overclassification should be corrected by government agencies. The agencies have shrugged... for a half-decade straight. But hey, transparency! More than half the agencies responded and only three outright denied the EFF's request. That's… something.

Tellingly, two agencies that oversee a ton of classified info responded negatively. James Clapper's office (ODNI) couldn't find anything that suggested it had scaled back its black marker use, and the National Archives and Records Administration first said the law didn't apply to it, before changing its mind and stating it had never implemented the program.

Other agencies that cherish their secrecy and fully-redacted FOIA responses also had made no moves towards scaling back overclassification. The FBI, DEA, and ATF all responded that no one in their agencies had ever claimed ROCA's cash prizes. The same thing goes for the DHS, Defense Department, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The State Department offered two "no files found" responses, with the first implying it had trouble understanding the question.

"You have not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them."


"Some or all of the records you have requested do not appear to be State Department records.

The good news is the FOIA process works, at least in this small sampling. The bad news is there's apparently no effort being made to live up to the demands of ROCA, six years after its passage into law. The end result may look more promising, what with agencies (for the most part) amping up their FOIA response capabilities. But if they're not handing over documents because they've gone wild with the "CLASSIFIED" stamp, then they may as well just go back to ignoring FOIA requests.

The worst news, though, is that government agencies feel directives issued via legislation are entirely optional. Their employers, however, are not given the luxury of ignoring laws they don't like. Taxpayers are expected to follow every stupid law forced on them by their representatives while subsidizing entire agencies that shrug off their responsibilities to the public.

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Filed Under: bonuses, classification, government, overclassification

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  1. identicon
    Former Fed, 30 Sep 2016 @ 4:11pm


    First, let me say that I was never involved in determining whether documents should be classified. My agency only dealt with SBU, FOUO, PII type of information.

    It's simply a matter of CYA (cover your ass). There are no serious punishments for classifying a document that shouldn't be. There can be very serious punishments for not classifying a document that should have been. Add to that, a natural human tendency to cover up things that are embarrassing, and there you have it.

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