The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. is drowning in its own secrets. It’s overdue for a rescue.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in McLean on July 27, 2021. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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Nearly a decade ago, a federal board warned in a report that practices for classification and declassification of national security information were “outmoded, unsustainable and keep too much information from the public.” The report found that petabytes of data were being classified annually. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Then, in 2019, a top U.S. official warned the government was creating petabytes every month and the system was “unsustainable, and desperately requires modernization.” In 2020, the federal board warned of an “explosion” of digital data now underway — and a “tsunami” in the years to come.

The U.S. government is drowning in its own secrets. Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, recently wrote to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) that “deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner.” The same conclusions have been drawn by the senators and many others for a long time.

The reasons for the logjam are well-known. Too much national security information is over-classified and too little is declassified. The volume of digital secrets is burgeoning, but the declassification system lumbers along at an analog pace. According to the Public Interest Declassification Board’s 2020 report, “The transition to email and other forms of instantaneous communications, and the pervasive use of social media applications have profoundly altered the way the Government conducts business.” By contrast, the paper-based declassification system “was created before the United States entered World War II, and it remains entrenched today.”

Hopefully, action to fix this long-festering mismatch will finally get underway. The 2020 report recommended that a new high-level executive be appointed to oversee the effort, and a new national declassification system be created that would work toward timely release of information. Technology must be used to modernize the aging systems, the report found, and the government ought to deploy the tools of big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud storage and retrieval to build a modern system with automation. Not everyone is sold on the automation concept, but it deserves exploration. The slow, page-by-page declassification process is broken.

So far, Ms. Haines said, current priorities and resources for fixing the classification systems “are simply not sufficient.” The National Security Council is working on a revised presidential executive order governing classified information, and we hope the White House will come up with an ambitious blueprint for modernization.

The nation needs to guard its secrets to function properly. But over-classification is counterproductive and adds to public distrust. A big improvement would be to simplify the classification process into two tiers, “secret” and “top secret,” with appropriate protections and guidelines that will also prevent labeling as “classified” material that does not need to be protected. In the words of one chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board, Nancy E. Soderberg, “Transformation is not simply advisable but imperative.” She was right about both the need and the urgency. That was nearly 10 years ago.