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.”
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.
The GAO found that Pentagon testers gave the system a failing grade, noting that it does not do its job properly and is particularly vulnerable to cyberattack.
The report was released in June, while Congress was deliberating on the defense budget. Instead of making the report available to the public, as most GAO reports are, Pentagon officials designated the report “for official use only,” which means that the government did not have to turn it over if, for example, news organizations were to request the document through the Freedom of Information Act.
“The Army chose to classify that document in such a way that prevented the GAO from displaying it on its web site. It’s very easy to put a classification on a document to keep it out of public view,” says a congressional staffer, who was not authorized to speak about the GAO report and asked to remain anonymous. “There was nothing in that report that included national security secrets, but the Army used the classification process in that moment to keep that report off the web site and available for anyone to access.
“That’s a very low-level example, but if it’s happening at that level, it’s happening everywhere,” the staffer said.
What’s more, with each passing year, the number of classified documents compounds.
As a result, the key is not only to examine how documents are classified, but also to have a more timely process for declassification, analysts say.
Currently, there is “robust disagreement” both within the intelligence community and within federal agencies about what should be classified, says Aftergood.
Mr. Manning's disclosures and Mr. Snowden’s NSA leaks offer two prime examples.
“Many people would say, ‘Gosh, I wanted to know that. I think it should have been disclosed,’ ” Mr. Aftergood says. “But ask anyone in the intelligence community and they will say it was properly classified all along. There are genuine disagreements.”
So how best to reform the classification system?
One approach might be to involve “people who are impartial and who have no interest and no stake in the classification process to participate,” Aftergood says.
If government agencies use a program manager who has a stake in the outcome of a weapons program, for example, “They are naturally going to have a self-interest in what gets disclosed. Even if their intentions are consciously honorable, their perceptions are going to be skewed by self-interest.”
A better approach might be to have Army officials look at Navy decisions, for example, or Pentagon officials look at what the CIA is classifying, or vice versa, Aftergood says.
“They are just going to bring a different set of interests and concerns and perspectives, to improve the quality,” he says.
Their task should also come with marching orders, he adds: “To reduce the number of classified documents to the minimum possible, and then let them [the analysts] loose.”