Classification and Consequences

Got a plan to open up government? The president wants to give you a prize. A new memo from the Office of Management and Budget says federal agencies should hand out awards to those who come up with ideas to roll back government secrecy.

April 16, 2010

Published in Roll Call.

Got a plan to open up government? The president wants to give you a prize. A new memo from the Office of Management and Budget says federal agencies should hand out awards to those who come up with ideas to roll back government secrecy. Similar contests, says the memo, brought fresh thinking on such things as lunar landers, space elevators and astronaut gloves.

President Barack Obama should be commended for encouraging open government. But while prizes may spur innovation, we need sticks as well as carrots to reduce government secrecy. Any meaningful reform must include a vital element that has been lacking for decades: consequences for those who wrongly hide information from the public. In particular, consequences would limit needless classification of documents by curbing overuse of the “SECRET” and “TOP SECRET” stamps.

In December, Obama replaced the Bush administration’s executive order on the classification and declassification of documents with one of his own. Now, the government cannot classify a document if “significant doubt” exists about the need to hide it, and “no information may remain classified indefinitely.” Obama ordered agencies to review their policies on secret documents. These are important steps in the direction of reform.

But Obama did not touch the part of the Bush order called “Sanctions,” nor did he require officials to supply reasons for classifying documents. Government employees can still block disclosure merely by invoking talismanic categories, like “foreign government information.”

The incentives remain skewed toward secrecy. Officials risk little when they classify documents. Some do so to avoid embarrassment. The Bush administration, for example, classified Gen. Antonio Taguba’s chilling report on Abu Ghraib, and thus kept the public in the dark about acts of torture. Others veil records because they fear reprimand for revealing too much, but not for concealing too much. And officials sometimes find it easier to conceal entire documents — including pages of harmless information — rather than spend time segregating the sensitive parts from the non-sensitive ones. All of this feeds massive over-classification. Experts of all political stripes say nine in 10 secret documents should not be classified.

Pointless secrets threaten our safety by blocking the flow of information within government. It is important to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans. But information about true threats to security must be available to the appropriate governmental officials. As the 9/11 commission warned, excessive secrecy stymies information exchange between federal agencies and makes it harder to connect the dots.

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