THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT keeps petabytes (that’s a million gigabytes each) of information secret every year — some of it highly sensitive, some of it hardly. A 1972 diplomatic telegram that discusses the exchange of gifts between the United States and China — musk oxen from the Nixon administration in return for two Chinese pandas — was labeled confidential, and it wasn’t declassified until 1997.
Americans have a right to know what the government is doing on their behalf or in their name, except in exceptional circumstances. A functioning democracy requires the people to hold their government to account. Accountability, in turn, requires knowledge about government activities. It also requires access to information about what the government has done in the past, and how that worked or didn’t. A complex and cautious system can even harm national security, keeping information from people within and outside government who could help make sense of it.
But America’s classification system “keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long.” That’s the conclusion of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a presidential task force, in a new report. Most of that classification, it notes, “occurs by rote.”
How big is the problem? Former national security officials have said that half or even most of the country’s classified documents need not be. Records that are 25 years old are supposed to be reviewed and declassified. There are enough 25-year-old records in storage to produce a backlog of 400 million pages. But with the proliferation of electronic communication over the past couple of decades, government classifiers are now cordoning off much more. The backlog, the board reckons, is set to grow exponentially.
Unfortunately, the board reports, those doing the classifying have little interest in shaking things up. They face few incentives to release information and many incentives to be overly cautious. No one is ever punished for classifying too many records, and no one wants to get in trouble for releasing sensitive material.
At the very least, government employees should not be scared of retribution. The board recommends offering “safe harbor” to those who, in good faith, decide to classify material at a lower level or not at all. Classification training should emphasize the importance of releasing information whenever possible. Records that still must be classified should be assessed for their value to the public and prioritized for eventual declassification review. Others that need to be classified for only a very short time might be scheduled for quick, automatic declassification. The process of declassifying what is already in the queue, meanwhile, must be streamlined by changing rules and technology.
Since the executive branch has control over most of the procedure, the White House should take the problem of over-classification seriously and convene a steering committee immediately to implement some of the board’s sensible suggestions. Even if that means some of America’s critical musk-oxen secrets slip out a little earlier.