The federal government’s security classification system is completely outdated and in dire need of reform, says the Public Interest Declassification Board, which reports that agencies are keeping hoards of information unnecessarily classified due to an organizational system that appears to be in chaos.
The board researched the government’s classification of sensitive national security intelligence at the behest of a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama. The order prescribes the need for a uniform system for safeguarding and declassifying information, noting “democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government.”
“If officials are to be held accountable for their actions and decisions, secrecy must be kept to a minimum required to meet legitimate national security concerns,” states the PIDB report, saying the system is compromised by “overclassification.”
The problem is both technical and cultural. The federal government reportedly still relies on a paper-based system that the report said is unworkable in a world increasingly adopting electronic records. But there is little evidence to suggest executive departments and agencies are taking steps to embrace advanced information technology.
The amount of classified information added to these archives annually considerably outpaces the amount declassified, according the report. If the government does not find a more efficient way to sort and store this information, an unknowable amount of intelligence could literally be buried as a result of pure disorganization.
“Without dramatic improvement in the declassification process, the rate at which classified records are being created will drive an exponential growth in the archival backlog of classified records awaiting declassification, and public access to the nation’s history will deteriorate further,” states the report. “Because declassification is not seen as a way to serve the national security mission, the public’s right to know what its government does is not well-served.”
There’s already evidence to suggest some agencies have misplaced classified information as a result of the current storage system. A three-year investigation conducted between 2007 and 2010 by the Washington National Records Center of the National Archives and Records Administration concluded that 81 boxes containing top-secret information are missing from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and several U.S. Navy offices.
“The government’s management of classified information must match the realities and demands in the 21st century. We hope our recommendations serve as a guide to lead the proposed committee in developing a comprehensive new policy and implementation plan,” PIDB Chair Nancy E. Soderberg wrote in a letter to Obama.
The agency recommends simplifying national security information by classifying it into only two categories, where “Top Secret” would retain a strong level of protection. Documents should be “defined and distinguished by the level of identifiable protection needed to safeguard and share information appropriately, and these protection levels would determine whether classification is warranted, at what level, and for how long.”
Steps also apparently need to be taken to address a culture of secrecy that permeates the federal government. The sentiment is so ingrained the board has called for training courses to teach employees how to identify information that should be declassified for public view.
Ashley covers U.S. politics for the International Business Times, with a focus on civil liberties, women's issues and campaign finance. Her work has also appeared in The...