Reducing Overclassification Through Accountability

10.06.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Reporting on intelligence can be a challenge even for an experienced national security reporter, observed Dana Priest in her book “Top Secret America” (co-authored with William Arkin).

“Having traveled the world with the military, I just didn’t understand why I was failing to progress with [reporting on] the CIA,” she wrote (p. 19).  “Maybe I wasn’t using the right terminology or phrases, or hadn’t found the right people to ask.  But the obvious answer was made clear to me one day when [CIA spokesman William] Harlow finally got tired of the badgering and let me have it, explaining in a very loud voice why, for the umpteenth time, he had no comment to my questions.  ‘This is a goddamn secret organization!  That’s why!'”

The notion that “it’s secret because it’s secret” actually goes a long way towards explaining the often reflexive and indiscriminate practice of national security classification.

It therefore stands to reason, says a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, that if classifiers were obliged to justify their classification actions with more clarity and precision, they would classify less.  Among other steps, the report recommends that each classification action be accompanied by a concise written explanation.  This would be one way of shifting incentives and burdens in favor of more thoughtful and more limited classification, the authors say.  They sensibly call for a pilot project to test and refine their proposal on a limited scale.  See “Reducing Overclassification Through Accountability” by Elizabeth Goitein and David M. Shapiro, Brennan Center for Justice, October 5.

However, it is not self-evident that this recommendation would have the desired effect.  There are probably very few classifiers who consciously abuse classification authority to withhold information that they know should not be classified.  Nor is it insurmountably difficult for a government official to devise a rationale even for a questionable classification decision, as many FOIA litigators can attest.  If classifiers are required to provide a written justification for their view, no matter how eccentric or ill-considered it may be, they will find a way to do so.

A better approach would seem to be to diminish the effect of individual and agency biases towards secrecy by submitting classification decisions to a broad consensual review.  (Since there are no purely objective standards to guide classification policy, a consensus of independent views may be the best one can hope for.)  A procedure of this sort is supposed to be followed in the ongoing Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, though it is unclear how broad a range of perspectives is actually being brought to bear.

Besides their several proposals for change, the Brennan Center authors present a lucid recapitulation of the case against unfettered secrecy that anyone can read with benefit.  Their report contributes another voice of urgency to the mounting demand for reform of national security secrecy.

The need for secrecy reform was also vividly illustrated by the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to candidly discuss the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last week, or even to present the legal justification for it.  See “A Closed-Mouth Policy Even on Open Secrets” by Scott Shane, New York Times, October 5.