Financial Costs of Classification Soar

07.02.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

At a time when “leaks” are said to be running rampant, the government is spending more money than ever before to protect classified information.  The estimated cost of securing classified information in government increased last year by at least 12% to a record high level of $11.36 billion.  An additional $1.2 billion was spent to protect classified information held by industry contractors.

These figures were reported to the President last week by the Information Security Oversight Office.  (More from Federal Times.)

The ISOO report breaks down the expenditures into six categories (personnel security, physical security, etc.).  But it does not provide any explanation for the rapidly escalating cost of secrecy.

One factor in the rising costs may be the continued growth of the secrecy system.  While some essential security costs are fixed and independent of classification activity, the failure to rein in classification and especially overclassification is a likely contributor to marginal cost growth.  The ISOO report itself provides a stark illustration of the overclassification problem when it notes that the classification costs of several intelligence agencies — CIA, DIA, ODNI, NGA, NRO and NSA — are excluded from the new report because they are classified.

“The cost estimates of these agencies are classified in accordance with Intelligence Community classification guidance and are included in a classified addendum to this report,” the ISOO report states.

But the classification of this information, which is almost certainly illegitimate, defies credulity for several reasons.

First, the secret intelligence cost numbers are estimates, not actual expenditures.  (“Requiring agencies to provide exact responses to the cost collection efforts would be cost prohibitive,” ISOO said.)  The potential intelligence value of such estimates to a hostile intelligence service is vanishingly small, particularly since their accuracy is variable and uncertain.

Second, the disclosure of the cost estimates for non-intelligence agencies, which has had no adverse effect on the security programs of those agencies, is a strong indication that no damage can result from release of such information.  If publication of the non-intelligence classification cost estimates had caused any kind of harm over the years, those estimates would not be published.  But of course they haven’t, and so they are.

Thus, one is led to conclude that the classification of the intelligence agency classification cost estimates is not threat-driven, but instead is “culture”-based.  The disclosure of the estimates would not cause identifiable damage to national security, which means this information has been classified in violation of executive order 13526.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no one to tell the DNI that his classification policies are mistaken.  Congress could perform critical oversight of classification policy, inquiring into the basis of particular classification decisions, but it almost never does so.  If anything, congressional leaders favor more aggressive and unforgiving enforcement of existing classification policies.  The Obama Administration’s Fundamental Classification Guidance Review was supposed to challenge the habits of reflexive classification, but in this case at least it has not had the desired effect.

If some rogue employee leaked a copy of the classification cost estimates for the intelligence agencies, he or she would be subject to new procedures announced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last week to combat unauthorized disclosures, including polygraph testing and inspector general investigations.

In the absence of leaks, the estimated cost of implementing the DNI’s new anti-leak procedures will be classified and unavailable to the public.