After last week’s NSA leaks, a lot of commentators (including me) have written that part of the problem is that the government keeps too many secrets.
Classifying vast amounts of data forces the government to hand out vast numbers of security clearances — 4.9 million at last count, including 1.4 million Top Secret clearances. Overclassification makes leaks more likely and the public less likely to take the view that leaks are bad.
What would it mean for the government to keep fewer secrets? What sort of practices can agencies adopt so they will be less likely to classify to begin with and more willing to declassify when information stops being sensitive?
It turns out, the federal government already has a board tasked with answering these questions: the Public Interest Declassification Board. And it issued a report with recommendations to the president last fall.
Many of the PIDB’s big recommendations address one big theme: agencies have lots of incentives to keep secrets and few incentives to share them. If we want the government to keep fewer secrets, we have to get agencies to properly treat secrecy as costly and weigh the cost of secrecy against the benefits.
The board’s ideas for improving that cost-benefit balance include changing the guidelines for classification to account for the cost of secrecy, creating a more streamlined and automatic process for declassification, and forcing agencies to share their declassification guidelines with each other.
They also urge the president to establish a “steering committee” on overclassification to hold agencies accountable for keeping too many secrets. An oversight board urging the establishment of a steering committee is possibly the most Washington thing ever, but this idea has merit.
As the board notes, “despite the Presidential order to refrain from unwarranted classification, a culture persists that defaults to the avoidance of risk rather than its proper management.” An external force pushing agencies to classify less would be a useful counterweight to internal pressures that lead agencies to overclassify.
Last month, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urged the president to act on the steering committee recommendation. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the PIDB recommendations. A spokesperson for Shaheen tells me she hasn’t heard back from the president, either.
While the recommendations strike are generally good, one area they don’t address is troubling. There is a stronger case for secrecy of information about specific sources and operations (think the leaks about counterterrorism operations in Yemen that are at issue in the AP phone records case) than information about broad policies (think the leaks about NSA phone records collection and PRISM).
It’s a problem that the government collects the phone records of substantially all Americans and didn’t tell us that it was doing so, but not for any of the usual reasons that people talk about overclassification being a problem. The issue here is that the secrecy prevents a public debate on the question of whether the policy of collecting the records is wise.
An additional goal of classification reform should be a strong presumption that Americans should not be subject to secret public policies. But unlike the more technical changes recommended by the PIDB, that’s likely to encounter a lot more resistance from officials who would prefer not to have to defend their policies in public.
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