National Security Secrecy at the Literal Expense of Openness

Among the statistics included in the recently-released 2011 Secrecy Report is this gem: according to publicly available data the federal government spent $201 creating and securing old secrets for every tax dollar spent declassifying in 2010. While this statistic is not precise –given that it does not include classified data from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Security Agency (NSA), it is a strong indicator of both the growth of the classified universe over the last decade and the priorities of our national security bureaucracy. As we have noted previously, one of the likely factors fueling this growth is  overclassification.

The universe of classified information has undeniably grown over the last decade. After never passing 170,000 prior to 2000, the number of original classification decisions between 2000 and 2010 hovered between 351,150 (2006) and 183,224 (2009). Growth in the volume of derivatively classified information is even more staggering. Classified information is derivatively classified when it is re-used in a new piece of information (i.e., a memo, report, power point slide, email) that must be handled as classified at the same level as the original and eventually separately declassified. The reported number of derivative classifications has been on the rise since we began tracking the statistic 2006; the trend became even more apparent when in 2009 the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) began counting derivatively classified emails in its annual report.

While the number of people with original classification authority has dropped dramatically in the last few years (from 4,109 in 2008 to 2,557 in 2009 to just 2,378 in 2010), the number of original classification decisions has not dropped correspondingly (203,541 in 2008, 183,224 in 2009, and 224,734 in 2010). That means, on average, a person with original classification authority classified about 9 documents in 2009, almost 72 documents in 2010 and almost 95 documents in 2010. 

The 2011 Secrecy Report also shows a declassification system that is failing to keep up with the volume of records. Since 2004 the federal government has reviewed between 48 million to 60 million pages per year for declassification (about 68 million pages were reviewed in 2006, an outlier). The percent of reviewed pages that were declassified ranged from about 50% to 60%. Taxpayers pick up the tab for continuing to protect pages that are not declassified. The report also shows that the system set up to handle public requests for declassification (in lieu of litigation) is laboring. Both the number of public requests for declassification (known as Mandatory Declassification Review or MDR) and the carry-over of requests not completed during the year have grown since we started tracking the numbers in 2007. The backlog of MDR appeals at the Information Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) has also grown.

In our first quantitative report on indicators of government secrecy in 2004, we called the $1 the federal government spent in 2003 releasing old secrets to the $120 maintaining the secrets already on the books “extraordinary.” It was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Barring a major change in policy and Administration attention, the amount taxpayers are on the hook for to keep the government’s “secrets” will only continue to grow and swamp the efforts to shrink the size of secret government.