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Too many classified papers at Pentagon? Time for a secrecy audit.

Auditors plan to review how the Pentagon decides if documents should be kept secret. At the heart of the matter is the right balance between national security and transparency for the public.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / August 2, 2013

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.), accompanied by Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon on July 31. Separately, the Government Accountability Office announced it will conduct a secrecy audit of the Department of Defense.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Government auditors announced this week that they will review how the Pentagon decides if documents should be kept secret, with an eye toward determining whether the Department of Defense engages in “classification inflation.”

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That it does seems clear, argue US lawmakers, who add that the challenge will be finding the right balance between transparency and secrecy. 

It’s a question that has been at the heart of hearings into the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked by Edward Snowden, and the trial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is awaiting sentencing for releasing documents that his defense team contends may have been embarrassing to the government but did not threaten US national security.

The secrecy audit, which will be conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), comes at the behest of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, who called for the assessment in June.

Representative Hunter specifically requested that the report examine “whether narrowing classification requirements would reduce the need for nearly 5 million individuals to hold security clearances, and whether reducing that number would limit security disclosures.” 

It will also delve into “the degree to which material is classified that does not materially impact national security.”

The GAO review is a “very promising” development, says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Congress has been negligent in my opinion in exercising oversight of classification policy.” 

What’s more, the Pentagon “is by far the largest classifier in the executive branch,” he adds. 

This in turn leads to other complications. In particular, “people are being issued security clearances strictly for the purposes of managing all of this classified information,” says Joe Kasper, spokesman for Hunter.

“There’s this idea that everything is classified – everything is a protected secret,” Mr. Kasper adds, noting that the proper figures may be closer to “five or six out of every ten” documents.

This over-classification, he says, “can be done for the purpose of withholding information from Congress, or from the public.”

As an example, some congressional staffers point to a recent unfavorable report that the GAO produced on the US military’s Distributed Common Ground System, a computer program that US troops use to process intelligence in war zones.

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