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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 10/13/2011

The high cost of keeping a secret


The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building is seen in Washington, D.C. (Rich Clement - BLOOMBERG)

Some intelligence secrets are too expensive to keep, according to Jennifer Sims, director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University.

“Intelligence has a purpose, even in a democracy, in keeping the nation safe,” Sims said. “But it only has a value as long as what it provides remains an advantage. Some secrets cost us too much.”

Those costly government secrets need to be declassified, but the current structure for declassification is outdated and ineffective, said Sims. However, according to a newly released study from the Brennan Center for Justice, a new, simpler strategy for declassification of government information could be on the horizon.

In the Oct. 5 study, authors Elizabeth Goitein and David Shapiro recommend that government agencies be held accountable for declassification, as required by an executive order. In addition, they outline a specific declassification strategy that uses impartial audits to hold agencies accountable for over-classification.

“No one is held accountable for classifying too much,” Goitein said. “But, in a democracy, blocking public access to information is a momentous thing. It shouldn’t be easy.”

The current system facilitates easy classification, according to Goitein. For example, classifiers can use dropdown computer menus to label even banal memos and emails as “classified” — a legal label denoting a threat to national security.

“It’s not quite a rubber stamp, but it’s not too far off,” she said. “Classifiers are not required to identify the national security harm that could result from releasing the information.”

Yet, Executive Order 13,526, which was approved by President Barack Obama in Dec. 2009, requires that a document only receive “classified” status if there is no doubt about the need for its secrecy. That requirement is not followed in many government agencies, said Bill Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO).

Leonard said he was not aware of anyone at ISOO ever being held accountable for over-classification.

“If individuals are not held accountable, that provision might as well be taken out of the Executive Order,” Leonard said.

But the accountability problems that stem from Executive Order 13,526 are symptoms of a deeply rooted “culture of classification,” said Sims. When people classify emails and memos because there is no incentive not to do so, according to Sims, it results in needless secrecy.

Yet, both Goitein and Sims support declassification strategies that aim to rebalance the incentives. The first step is bringing the declassification system up to date with technology.

Effective declassification in this era does not merely focus on locating “dirty words” within documents to determine whether or not they should be kept secret, according to Sims. Instead, Sims advocates a computerized method that could look at those terms in the larger historical context of a document.

However, there are some foreseeable problems with this “context accumulation” technology, according to Chris Shays, former co-chair of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The things that are most important for the public to know are often too complicated for mechanical sorting.

“There ought to be an element of judgment that cannot be replicated by a computer,” Goitein said.

As a result, Goitein’s strategy takes a different approach. It focuses on holding classifiers accountable for their decisions at the beginning of the process, in order to reduce the amount of classified information over time. The first step is to hold classifiers accountable for their decisions about which documents receive “classified” status, Goitein said.

“We’re not talking about an extended essay, but they should have to put forward two or three sentences why the disclosure of the information would harm national security,” she said.

Goitein also recommends selective audits of classifiers by the Office of the Inspectors General. These audits would be tied to mandatory consequences if a person were found to be classifying material unnecessarily.

“I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from government officials who say that this will create too much work, especially if they’re sending a dozen or so classified emails every day,” Goitein said. “And I know that will create a burden. That’s actually part of the point.”

Goitein said she has been in communication with several small agencies about the possibility of launching these procedures in the near future. However, she said she did not feel comfortable naming prospective participants at this time.

“I am hopeful that something like what we proposed could be implemented as a pilot project,” Goitein said, “because, despite its simplicity, nothing like it has really ever been tried.”

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By Melissa Steffan  |  07:00 AM ET, 10/13/2011

 
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