“There's classified, and then there's classified,” President Barack Obama said in a recent interview. Unfortunately, he's right: The U.S. government classifies vast amounts of material as secret, top secret and the like, much of it with no relevance to national security.
This isn't just a bureaucratic waste of money and a blow to the democratic ideal of government transparency. Overclassification makes the U.S. less secure, in that it distracts intelligence agencies from protecting actual life-and-death secrets, and undermines public support for data collection and other measures needed to keep us safe. Justice and accountability require a thorough reappraisal of the need for secrecy.
One person who understands the problem is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whom nobody could call soft on national security. In March, he asked his agency chiefs to find ways to make more documents available for public scrutiny. One striking suggestion: Switch from a system in which some materials are scheduled for declassification after a set period - often 15 or 25 years - to one in which officials actively look to identify documents that can be declassified sooner.
More broadly, the intelligence community needs to lose its risk-averse mindset about documents: Nobody ever got fired for classifying something that didn't need it. To alter that dynamic, each of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community could appoint a declassification official, similar to an inspector general, to pore over secret materials and identify those documents that most deserve public scrutiny. Agencies that fared poorly in these random audits would know the extent to which they are wasting time and money on needless secret-keeping.
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A simpler change would be to drop the lowest level of classification, “confidential,” altogether, as Britain did in 2014. Documents in that category have no bearing on national security yet account for more than one-fifth of classified material. Eliminating the label, Clapper says, would free personnel to vet truly sensitive materials.
Any experienced government official can tell you that classification can be used for purely political ends, such as hiding documents to save an agency or official from embarrassment or legitimate scrutiny. Transparency on this score could be improved by ensuring that contractors at intelligence agencies have the same job protections as full-time staffers if they bring malfeasance to light through proper whistle-blowing channels.
The intelligence community has made some recent progress on unnecessary secrecy. The number of people holding security clearances has dropped significantly -- a good sign, because overclassification creates the demand for such permissions. The government claims it has lowered overall classification rates as well, though some critics don't trust the figures. In any event, more needs to be done. In his remaining months in office, Obama should press for changes to ensure that the next administration will be more open than his.