FLIP THROUGH the Senate intelligence committee's report on prewar intelligence and you'll find instance after instance in which lines, paragraphs, even entire pages are blacked out. It could have been worse, though: If intelligence officials had their way, nearly half of the 511-page report would have been redacted, rather than the 15 percent or so that was excised in the final version. Said one outraged senator: "The initial thing that came back was absolutely an insult, and it would be laughable if it wasn't so insulting, because they redacted half of what we had. A lot of it was to redact a word that revealed nothing." The speaker? Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), hardly a wild-eyed foe of the intelligence community.
With congressional inquiries and commissions proliferating in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq, so, too, are tensions over how much of their findings can be released to the public -- and whether the intelligence community is abusing its power to decide what should remain classified in order to shield itself from embarrassment rather than safeguard national security secrets.
Indeed, Mr. Lott isn't alone in his frustration with the system. It took more than six months of wrangling for the congressional joint committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks to extract approval to publish its report -- and even then it had to black out an entire section involving Saudi Arabia. "I've reviewed the 28 pages twice, and my judgment is that 90 to 95 percent could be released and not compromise our intelligence in any way," Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said at the time.
No one wants to insist on the release of information that could aid terrorists or other enemies of the United States. Clearly, some information reviewed by lawmakers or other investigators must remain secret. But the way the system is structured, no one can have confidence that the judgments to keep information classified are being made on the basis of national security alone -- and there is ample evidence to the contrary. The reports already produced have offered a powerful, even chastening demonstration of the importance of outside oversight and review; it's hard to see what the arguments for classifying parts of those documents would have been. Among other effects, this undermines the credibility of the classifiers when it comes to protecting real secrets.
It's time to consider an alternative mechanism that could balance the legitimate competing needs for secrecy and openness without suffering from the conflict of interest inherent in the existing system. One solution is on the front end: to reduce the rampant overclassification of information in the first place. "Three-quarters of what I read that was classified shouldn't have been," said Thomas H. Kean, the chairman of the Sept. 11 commission. On the back end, the trick is to find a decision maker with enough expertise to make judgment calls on classification but without a built-in bias for hoarding information. One solution might be a souped-up version of an existing entity, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, created in 1995 to rule on declassification requests and composed of representatives from the CIA, the State, Defense and Justice departments, the national security adviser, and the National Archives. Another, suggested by Mr. Lott, is to convene an independent review group, perhaps composed of retired intelligence officials, to make such determinations. The current system isn't serving the intelligence community, those examining its activities or the public.