When stamping 'secret' goes too far

If too little information is shared or made public, no one can make informed decisions.

It has been over one year since Congress passed the Intelligence Reform Act, the largest restructuring of our national security agencies in half a century. As the law is implemented, we must overcome entrenched bureaucratic trends. Perhaps most entrenched is our tendency toward secrecy and overclassification.

Estimates of classified documents reach into the trillions, and the trends are toward more - not less - secrecy. In 1994, there were 4 million national security classification decisions made; in 2003, there were 15 million. The Information Security Oversight Office declassified 100 million pages of documents in 2001, but only 28 million in 2004. Requests filed by the media and the public under the Freedom of Information Act are routinely rejected or mysteriously delayed. Although the law calls for FOIA requests to receive a response within 20 days, the norm is significantly higher. Several senior officials have estimated that 50 percent of classified information does not need to remain secret. During our work on the 9/11 Commission, chairman Tom Kean - not accustomed to dealing with classified material - asked me scores of times: Why is this material classified? I never had a satisfactory answer.

Why is this the case? Our government has always adhered to a "need to know" principle when dealing with information, compartmentalizing who is permitted to see what, and what information will be made available to the public. Some of this is for good reason - sources and methods of collection, for instance, must be protected. But all the incentives run toward secrecy: You can get in trouble for mistakenly disseminating information, but you cannot get in trouble for stamping something secret. You might say the motto is: When in doubt, classify.

Why is this a problem? To begin with, as we suggested on the 9/11 Commission, the "need to know" principle must be balanced against a "need to share" principle. A post-9/11 reality should not simply mean classifying more information; the lesson of 9/11 is that we must share more information, because the American people can be as hurt by the failure to share information as they can by the disclosure of secrets. That does not mean doing away with "need to know." It means recalibrating the balance between secrecy and sharing.

To make full use of the information we collect, information must be shared horizontally, across intelligence agencies; vertically, within each agency; and, when possible, outwardly, to the American public. Of what use is a piece of intelligence collected by the FBI if it cannot be fitted with another piece of the puzzle within the CIA or Department of Homeland Security, or from another FBI Field Office? Of what use is a warning of an attack if it does not reach the public?

Second, by classifying less information, we can focus resources on the secrets that must be kept. To paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart, when everything is classified, nothing is classified. If everything has a "Secret" stamp on it, the value of that stamp is debased, people become less careful in their handling of information, and more secrets are leaked. At our current rate, secrecy has too high a price: It has cost the public $7 billion since 2001 alone.

Third, overclassification harms public debate. The 9/11 Commission Report's impact is in part attributable to its unique level of declassification; without that full, unvarnished story of 9/11, the American people would not have been galvanized for reform, and the Intelligence Reform Act would likely not have taken place. Conversely, when too little information is made public, the public lacks the facts for informed judgment, and support for policies is shallow. Those controlling information are tempted to use it to control the debate. Malfeasance in the shadows of government is not ferreted out, and constructive input - from the media, academia, and citizens - is less probable.

In short, secrecy leaves us less prepared to face the great challenges of the day. What if, before 9/11, information about Al Qaeda was more widely shared within the government? What if, before 9/11, the public was more informed of the warnings of terrorist attacks within the government? Armed with information, people might have been more alert.

The government must conduct some work in the shadows; paradoxically in a democratic society, some secrets must be kept to protect democracy. But we need more incentives for information sharing, more rapid systems of declassification, and more public understanding of what our government does and does not do. That is the core of representative democracy and good government. We need that national security official to pause before stamping something secret, and to consider the ramifications of not disseminating information.

Lee H. Hamilton, who spent 34 years in Congress and was chairman of the then House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - the 9/11 Commission. He is currently president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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