Over-classification: How Bad Is It, What’s the Fix? (Occasional Paper 2303)
On March 28, 2023, The Wall Street Journal’s, “Too Much U.S. Government Information Is Classified, Report Finds,” spotlighted a problem NPEC has been focused on for more than two years – the over-classification of national security information. The headaches over-classification creates are severe. Those in the Washington “know” understand this but insist government officials can’t help themselves: The penalties for letting a document leak far outweigh any professional rewards that might come from making secret information more available. Their conclusion: Trying to reform our classification system is like jumping down a bottomless rabbit hole.
That’s the conventional wisdom. It’s also dead wrong. In fact, effective national security organizations have strong incentives to eschew over-classification. There is an effective way to do it, and it has been done. This is one of the key conclusions of an overwhelming number of experts who participated in an over-classification project my center ran over two years, hosting over a dozen private – and frank – workshops.
Attached is this project’s final report, “Over-classification: How Bad Is It, What’s the Fix?” The Public Interest Declassification Board received a private briefing on it (at their request) earlier this month. The report first details how harmful over-classification has become to our national security and gives examples:
- American troops having to buy their own imagery from private firms to be able to use and share what they need to fight with their allied armed compatriots on battlefields
- The head of the U.S. Space Force being banned from mentioning the name of spy satellites the press routinely writes about
- Official historians tasked with writing classified histories to help managers of black programs learn from the mistakes of the past being unable to find key classified documents because of the Pentagon‘s penchant to blow-off archival requirements and routine declassification reviews
- Wasteful, expensive duplication of programs in the military space sector that are siloed by special access classification barriers that block needed cross-communication and proper Congressional oversight
- The stifling of innovation, collaboration, and critical information sharing at and with smaller U.S. and allied tech firms, key military allies, as well as draconian and cumbersome security rules that discourage some of the most innovative firms here and abroad from sharing their best technologies with the Pentagon
- Keeping previously available information on U.S. civilian nuclear exports and cooperation from Congressional oversight even when such transfers might help countries develop nuclear weapons options
Fortunately, the working group discovered most of this over-classification-induced dysfunction is unnecessary. The proof is that one, critical U.S. national security agency in the Intelligence Community, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), has already paved a way out of this morass.
Currently, our government has over 2,000 security classification guidebooks and roughly 1,400 original classification authorities. It is unworkable in today’s fast-paced environment where decision advantage is crucial. Nobody can consult them all and they don’t. These numbers, and the impossibility of mastering their guidance, is a key reason so many government staff simply press the classified button — it’s safe, it’s easy, and it takes little or no thought.
The NGA realized, however, that taking the easy path was a sure-fire route to their agency’s undoing: NGA could only succeed if it could add value to its imagery to make it more attractive than commercial, unclassified space imagery providers. Deliver the product too late, make it impossible to share with allies, and make collaboration with allies and firms to produce and use it difficult, and you go out of business. So, what did NGA do? It looked at the 65 confusing, vague, contradictory classification guidebooks it was using and reduced them to a single electronic guidebook. It also eliminated the subjective, contradictory guidance it contained to zero by requiring classifiers to justify their proposals to an intra-agency group of users, declassifiers, historians, and subject matter experts. It also made appeals easy and quick and allowed for the constant updating of the guidebook. This has helped make NGA a governmental success.
Other national security agencies can replicate this success. It is imperative they do so. Unless we reduce the number of subjective, vague, and contradictory classification and declassification guidebooks and original classification authorities dramatically, any hope of automating the review of the ever-expanding number of classified documents generated on a daily basis will be less than zero.
So, what’s to be done? That is the second part of the report. Much can be accomplished by updating the classification Executive Order. The White House has started this effort. It is a good first step. But more is needed. Ultimately, Congress must be more active. An important recommendation is that Congress actually fund and authorize dedicated staff to the Public Interest Declassification Board it created 20 years ago. So far it hasn’t. It was on the cusp of doing so last year. It needs to get on with this.
What else is needed? NPEC’s working group held more than 12 sessions and proffered scores of ideas, all of which are included in the attached occasional paper. To be sure, some are more practical than others. All, however, are worth considering.
Over-classification: How Bad Is It, What’s the Fix?
Excessive Classification: Seriously Undermining U.S. National Security
As Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Mike Pence have all recently discovered, America’s national security classification system can catch one out. If these procedures’ complexity and murky character merely threatened embarrassment of a handful of high-level officials, though, they might not warrant further attention. Unfortunately, they and their cloudiness threaten far more than that. In specific, their vagueness combined with officials’ fear of accidentally releasing – by not classifying or classifying at an insufficiently high enough level – sensitive national security information renders vast and unimaginably large volumes of information, which should be shared at lower classification levels or unclassified, inaccessible. Unfortunately, this over-classification epidemic is killing off our nation’s common defense, not protecting it.
Most recently, the Pentagon and Intelligence Community have struggled to make information available to the U.S. public and America’s allies about China’s strategy to exploit near-space through use of unmanned vehicles and balloons in American, allied, and other nations’ air space. Understandably, demand for this information both in and outside of Washington is high.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon decided to improperly use a new classification designation – Controlled Unclassified Information – to keep otherwise public weapons test results from Congress, impairing Congress’ ability to conduct oversight. As a result, the Senate Armed Services Committee is questioning the necessity of the marking entirely.
However, the excessive secrecy of high-end classified information, called special access programs or SAPs, is causing great harm to our nation’s security and excessively bloating budgets, and reducing our innovative edge. The unhindered proliferation of these SAPs and the lack of oversight and accountability are deeply concerning, as China rapidly develops new weapons systems and tools that we are unable to match in this unwieldy environment.
For years now, senior Pentagon officials (including the deputy secretaries of defense, secretaries of the U.S. Air Force, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Staff, the head of Space Command, the head of the Space Force), our closest allies, and the top aerospace organizations and companies have all complained repeatedly and loudly. Over-classification, they note, has hobbled (and even prevented) important space collaboration with America’s allies; protected wasteful, costly programmatic duplications of effort; and significantly slowed rates of innovation that smaller start-up firms might otherwise fuel. It also has unnecessarily delayed or prevented timely hiring of top-notch, high-tech staff that lack special clearances and cannot get them simply because of artificial ‘billeting’ limits. It has undermined support for America’s most advanced military space programs that might otherwise be available if our diplomats and military could share more of what they knew.
To view the full occasional paper click here.