MANY PEOPLE take it with a grain of salt when a newspaper -- whose job it is to reveal information to the public -- complains that government keeps too many secrets. But those skeptical of our oft-repeated complaints about over-classification ought to consider the remarkable testimony last week of two government officials at a House subcommittee hearing on the subject. J. William Leonard, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, and Carol A. Haave, undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, both estimated that an astounding percentage of secret material is improperly classified.
"It is no secret that government classifies too much information," Mr. Leonard said. "What I find most troubling . . . is that some individual agencies have no idea how much information they generate is classified, whether the overall quantity is increasing or decreasing, what the explanations are for such changes . . . and most importantly of all, whether the changes are appropriate." Mr. Leonard, in response to questioning from Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), added that the amount of material "that shouldn't be classified in the first place . . . over the past year is disturbingly increasing" and that on discretionary calls he feels the government gets it wrong more than half the time. Ms. Haave also candidly acknowledged that "I do believe that we over-classify information" and she described the problem as "extensive," though "not for the purpose of wanting to hide anything." Pushed by Mr. Shays to quantify the over-classifica tion, she said, "How about if I say 50-50?"
Unnecessary secrecy erodes public confidence in government. It makes it impossible to take at face value government assertions that information is genuinely sensitive -- even when it is. And in a post-Sept. 11 world, needless secrecy is downright dangerous insofar as it prevents the open sharing of information that ought to have many different pairs of eyes examining and analyzing it.
The Sept. 11 commission recently recommended declassifying intelligence community budget information. This would be a good place to start. Congress and the administration also need to make sure that some fraction of the hours devoted each year to classifying information gets spent declassifying material that is no longer sensitive. Forthright acknowledgement of the scope of the problem is laudable, but it also underscores the need for reform.