The federal government is classifying information at a rapidly increasing pace, and every time the CIA, FBI or National Security Agency stamps a document "Top Secret," it's risking the public's right to know, says a report released Thursday by the Public Interest Declassification Board.
The current classification system, the board concluded, is "fraught with problems. In its mission to support national security, it keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long; it is overly complex; it obstructs desirable information sharing inside of government and with the public."
The board, an official body of academics, ex-spys and transparency experts appointed by the president and Congress, does not have the power to force changes. Only the president, it says, has the power to force agencies to end an overly cautious culture of secrecy. But non-governmental organizations have questioned the administration's commitment to transparency, citing its prosecution of people who have leaked confidential documents to the press.
The National Archives have a declassification backlog of 400 million pages just for documents older than 25 years. And as computers suck up more data, the problem is getting worse. At one unnamed intelligence agency, the board found, the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text is classified every 18 months.
What we lose, said Nancy Soderberg, the board's chair, is "a much more rich understanding of some of the decisions of the U.S. government" as well as whistleblowers who could expose government misdeeds, since "you go to jail if you leak classified information ... most government employees don't want to break the law."
That will not change without an aggressive plan coming from the very top, she said. "Unless the White House really drives these issues, the overwhelming tendency to protect the status quo will kick in."
The White House asked the board to conduct its study of classification procedures in the first place. In November, the president signed into law a bill strengthening whistleblower protections for most government employees. At the same time, however, the administration took a hard line against those who blow the whistle outside of what it considered the proper channels.
As the lawyer for Pfc. Bradley Manning noted on Monday, while the president was signing that new whistleblower bill into law, military prosecutors were facing off in court against his client, who is accused of sending sensitive State Department cables to WikiLeaks. The Obama administration, moreover, has prosecuted more people for leaking classified information under the Espionage Act than all its predecessors combined.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, argued that the smarter approach toward classification and declassification recommended by the board must be combined with a more enlightened attitude toward whistleblowers who go to the press.
"There are lots of ways to blow the whistle, and this president has done a lot to strengthen protections, particularly for those who use internal channels," she said.
But, she added, "I think there's a great concern that people are going to be punished for revealing information that never should have been marked classified in the first place."
The president should start by taking up the Public Interest Declassification Board's recommendations on classification, she said. And then it should go a step further by considering whether and how aggressively it needs to prosecute those who leak in the public interest.
"I think that certainly we have to take into account the public's interest in all disclosures, including unauthorized disclosures of classified information," she said. "It is deeply worrying that currently this administration's approach to these public disclosures is not to weigh and balance the interest of the public with potential harm, but it looks like a witch hunt."