By Mike Ludwig. This article was first published on Truthout.
The sweeping spying and surveillance programs revealed by the Snowden leaks have raised serious questions about whether the United States government values the privacy of foreign governments and its own citizens, but it’s clear that the government values its own privacy. The government and its contractors spent nearly $11 billion last year on the system for classifying and declassifying information kept hidden from public view, according to the Information Security Oversight Office.
That’s billion with a “b,” and that number may not even include the amount of money spent by secretive national security agencies like the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, which classify the information on how much money they spend on classifying information, according to Elizabeth Goitein, a national security analyst for the Brennan Center for Justice.
In 2012 alone, government employees made more than 95 million decisions to classify documents, memos and communications. Classified documents are shielded from public view and even from requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a crucial tool used by journalists and watchdogs to hold the government accountable and encourage public debate over domestic policy and national security issues.
“It’s basically a FOIA killer to classify something,” Goitein told Truthout.
Over-classification can even hamper the government’s national security efforts by reducing the amount of information that is shared between security and law enforcement officials and their respective agencies, according to a 2011 Brennan Center report. The 9/11 Commission, for example, found that the failure to share information contributed to intelligence gaps in the months before the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Goitein said the over-classification is an “enormous” problem that has plagued the federal government for decades. Despite some well-intentioned legislative efforts and a 2009 executive order from President Obama, there is no sole entity in the government tasked with setting and enforcing standards for classifying information.
A recent internal audit at the Justice Department found a “persistent misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of certain classification processes by officials.” While misclassification was not widespread, the audit found 357 classification marking errors in its review of 141 documents.
Information is typically classified to protect national security, but Goitein said that standard leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
“The standards and criteria for classification are incredibly broad and vague and leave a ton of discretion to the classifier . . . you can’t necessarily define what is sensitive national security information,” Goitein said.
Government officials also have plenty of reasons to classify information that have nothing to do with protecting national security, he added. In the government’s thick bureaucracies, it’s easier to get things done with fewer people, so officials may classify information simply to keep their colleagues from interfering with decision-making. There are turf wars between federal agencies, so officials in one agency may classify information to keep it away from the competition in another. Officials may also classify information to hide government misconduct.
And then there’s the universal human reaction to the exciting idea of secret information, and that can be a motivating factor for an official looking to impress a higher-up or enhance their status in an agency.
“It makes your document more important if it has a ‘top secret’ stamp on it,” Goitein said.
The Obama administration is making a slow march toward reforming the way government officials classify documents. Goitein and the Brennan Center recently applauded the administration’s National Action Plan that was submitted last week to the Open Government Partnership, a transparency initiative that includes 60 countries. In the plan, the administration announced the creation of the Classification Reform Committee, which will review recommendations for reform made by the independent Public Interest Declassification Board.
Goitein said the creation of the reform committee is an important first step toward reform, “but the devil is in the details.” The committee is an interagency committee with White House backing, so if it is tasked broadly, it could have a big impact on reforming the classification system and help streamline the otherwise autonomous classification practices at different federal agencies. But the committee, she said, needs to be staffed correctly under strong leadership from the White House, and it remains to be seen if it will go beyond simply considering recommendations already made by the advisory declassification board and set up a reform mechanism with teeth.