Overclassification: Still Making Us Less Secure and More Secretive

All too often government openness and national security are thought of as counterbalancing national interests. Despite this "conventional wisdom," there are plenty of instances where less secrecy actually makes us more secure. The classic example of this countervailing wisdom at work is overclassification. By lumping useless information in with information that really needs to be protected, we degrade the integrity of the system – leading to more leaks and other costly outcomes. Oh, and- speaking of costly- we waste precious resources protecting that useless information.


Rampant overclassification is a problem that has been identified by numerous Congressional committees, Commissions, advisory groups, and even by President Obama.  Anyone who doubts our government overclassifies need only look at some of the disclosures made by WikiLeaks. Our friends at the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News have some great examples of the silly information our government treats as secret here.


As OpenTheGovernment.org’s Director, Patrice McDermott, recently argued in an editorial* published in Government Information Quarterly with our colleagues from the Project On Government Oversight – POGO, "Although it is too early to tell if the disclosures will benefit or harm the public interest, there is without question real harm associated with pervasive and excessive government secrecy." The article goes on to explain how the government’s reactions to the WikiLeaks disclosures to date could serve to only make the situation worse.


Of course, we also a couple suggestions for how the government could begin to reduce the size of the classified universe and restore the integrity of our national security classification system:

  1. The Administration must make sure agencies faithfully and fully implement President Obama’s January 2009 Executive Order (EO) on Classified National Security Information, EO 13526 (section 1.9). The EO includes a mechanism to help curb overclassification of national security information through the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review process. Unfortunately, the process has produced no known results to date.
  2. Congress should work to create a whistleblower system that would prevent leaks. Government employees with knowledge of wrongdoing involving classified information should have safe, legal channels by which to disclose such issues.


The two suggestions outlined here are not by any means the only promising avenues for finally reining in overclassification. The Public Interest Declassification Board’s (PIDB) has been at work on options for transforming the classification process. Several of our partners and others have submitted classification reform proposals to the PIDB. These proposals and those offered by PIDB members should be given close consideration. Congress and the Administration need to get serious about finally getting a handle on the problem. Crafting policies and procedures to ensure that only information that legitimately needs protection is labeled as classified would create a more credible, agile and flexible classification system.


*Reprinted with permission from Elsevier from Government Information Quarterly, Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011, Pages 135-136, Danielle Brian, Patrice McDermott, and Jake Weins, WikiLeaks is a wake-up call for openness, Pages 135-136, Copyright (2011).

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