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Does the government have a problem with ‘runaway’ document classification?

Two Democrats this week introduced legislation to rein in “runaway over-classification” of official documents and revamp the federal government’s security-clearance system.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) said their bill would reduce classification costs while improving information-sharing and transparency among agencies.

(Courtesy: Transportation Security Administration FOIA office) (Transportation Security Administration FOIA office)

The measure would request that the president to trim the amount of classified information by at least 10 percent within five years, in addition to granting the Merit Systems Protection Board authority to hear cases from employees who have been deemed ineligible for security clearance and establishing a congressional stance that only positions involving access to classified information should require clearance, among other actions.

The government spends more than $11 billion classifying more than 80 million documents each year, according to a 2013 report from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Thompson and Wyden said in a joint statement that the ballooning volume of classified materials has sparked an increase in security-clearance requirements. More than 5 million federal employees and contractors need such clearances for their roles, according to data from the Director of National Intelligence.

Thompson said the proliferation of document classification represents an “unsustainable course where too much information is classified — creating barriers to information sharing and driving up federal spending to safeguard this material.”

Similarly, Wyden said the government’s system for managing national security information has grown “too unwieldy to be truly secure.”

“Instead of rushing to create new monitoring programs that could have a chilling effect on legitimate whistleblowers, it is time to reverse the culture of unnecessary classification.”

Security clearances are costly. A top-secret designation cost a minimum of about $4,000 apiece, according to the lawmakers.

Thompson and Wyden said about 40 percent of clearance-holders don’t even have access to classified information, adding that the government spends about $400 million annually to process investigations for those workers.

As for the costs for classifying documents, the lawmakers said the government spent an estimated $11.6 billion in 2013 to maintain a system containing between 7.5 billion and 1 trillion pages of information.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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