In overclassification, what's hidden is the cost
This system has enormous hidden cost in dollars and excessive secrecy. Every once in a
while, someone takes a close look at classification policy and practice.
For example, in March 1997, the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government
Secrecy issued a report. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the 1994
legislation that created the temporary study commission, served as chairman. Other members
of the commission included Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and
Larry Combest (R-Texas).
The political leanings of the congressional members covered the spectrum from right to
left. Public members were drawn mostly from the national security establishment. Given
this cast of characters, it is not surprising that the report is bland, reeks of political
compromise and contains no sweeping recommendations for reform.
No one disputes the need to classify some information, but most agree that too much
information is classified. Those who distrust the national security agencies conclude that
overclassification is done to avoid accountability and hide embarrassing information. The
opposite point of view is that national security is still needed in a dangerous world.
This is a fertile area for debate among policy-makers. The end of the Cold War provided
a great rallying cry for those who want less secrecy. That is the origin of the secrecy
The commission recommended new legislation, new classification standards and other
relatively familiar mechanisms aimed both at classification and declassification. Even if
the recommendations are implemented, however, it is hard to see how anything will change
A major problem with classification is controlling the front end of the process. While
policy debates drone on, those who classify information do as they please. Tons of
documents are classified annually. No one is interested in spending the time, energy or
money to oversee the process document by document. The result? Agency workers classify
while intellectuals write reports.
Still, I found two noteworthy ideas in the report. The first is its explanation of
lifecycle costs for classification. It may be easy to stamp a document top secret, but
significant fiscal consequences are hidden. The document must be protected, people who
read it need security clearances, and someone will have to review it from time to time
until it is declassified.
When classifying a document, the question is not simply whether the information is
sensitive. Classifiers should also ask if the secrecy is worth the cost. Some years ago,
the Defense Department stopped classifying its space shuttle missions because the huge
cost wasn't worth the marginal increase in security. Much of the information leaked out
The second good idea was only mentioned in passing. The report described how the
National Security Council prevents personnel from sending electronic mail until they have
certified whether classification is needed.
This requirement reduces unnecessary classification. Software formalizes the
classification process, documents the decision and holds the decision-maker accountable.
The computer provides the front-end control that neither policy-makers nor administrators
have the ability to provide. This technology has promise, but the report did not explore
I have my own simple proposal to control overclassification. Anyone who classifies a
newspaper article or other published document should be fired immediately.
Admittedly, this isn't a comprehensive solution, but it offers a clear line. You only
have to fire one person to make the point. So whatever you do, don't classify this column.
Interested in more about classification issues? Point your browser to http://www.fas.org/sgp.
Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists is the best public interest
observer of classification policy and practice. Read his Secrecy and Government Bulletin.
I highly recommend it.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations Subcommittee
on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington privacy and
information policy consultant. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.