Let’s Sequester Secrecy

The size and scope of America’s secrecy state is staggering. Agencies spent nearly $10 billion in 2012 managing and protecting classified information all while ongoing budget cuts are making life more difficult for federal workers and the millions of Americans they serve.

July 1, 2013

Crossposted from Politico.

Every week, it seems, brings a new story about how harsh automatic budget cuts are affecting important government programs, making life more difficult for federal workers and the millions of Americans they serve. Agencies are performing elaborate feats of triage to mitigate the damage, subjecting the darkest corners of their budgets to unprecedented scrutiny. In the brave new world of sequestration, every penny counts.

So here’s an idea: Let’s sequester secrecy.

The size and scope of America’s secrecy state is staggering. Consider the classification system — only one part of the government’s vast secret-keeping apparatus. In late June, the Information Security Oversight Office, which is responsible for overseeing the classification system, reported that agencies spent nearly $10 billion in fiscal year 2012 on managing and protecting classified information. That amount is down somewhat from 2011, but it still exceeds the entire budget for the Environmental Protection Agency and is roughly twice the budget of the National Cancer Institute. The number is also an underestimate because some of the most prolific generators of classified information — including the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency — classify the amount they spend on classification.

Classification would be well worth its cost if it were always justified by national security considerations. But that is far from the case. Blue-ribbon commissions and congressional committees dating back to the 1950s have noted that “overclassification” is the norm, not the exception. High-ranking intelligence and military officials have estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of classified documents could safely be released. According to ISOO’s report, when members of the public ask agencies to review the status of classified documents, the agency declassifies some or all of the documents more than 80 percent of the time. In short, we are spending billions of dollars to protect information that does not need protecting.

What types of expenses fall under this price tag? Most obviously, there is the cost of securing the information itself. That entails physical security, such as the building and maintenance of special rooms and containers where classified information is kept. A filing cabinet that is outfitted to store classified documents runs the government 10 times more than a regular filing cabinet. Information security also entails systems security: maintaining secure computer networks and communications systems and guarding against unauthorized access. Altogether, ISOO reported that these measures cost $5.7 billion in 2012.

Then there is the cost of processing security clearances for those who require access to classified information. As the amount of classified information generated by the government continues to skyrocket — ISOO reported 95 million decisions to classify information in 2012 — the number of people needing clearances increases, as well. Currently, about 5 million people hold a security clearance, and each must have been subject to an expensive background check. In 2012, the price tag for this and other “personnel security” measures was $1.4 billion. Given the massive leaks by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, some might conclude we’re not spending enough in this area. But the real lesson here is the need to downsize: When one in every 50 American adults has access to the nation’s secrets, leaks — which, of course, are costly in their own right — are simply inevitable.

The cost of declassification must be taken into account, as well. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in December 2009 establishing the sound principle that no document may remain classified indefinitely. Every classified document, in other words, must eventually be declassified — at significant expense. The government spent nearly $50 million on declassification activities in 2012.

Moreover, one of the most significant costs associated with classification does not appear anywhere in agencies’ classification budgets. When small groups of executive officials make important decisions in secret without the informed input of other officials, Congress and the American public, poor policy choices are bound to result. The monetary costs of these choices cannot always be quantified — but sometimes they can. In making its case for war in Iraq, for instance, the executive branch classified and withheld information undermining its public assertions that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. We can never know for sure what would have happened if full information had been presented. It is at least possible, however, that we might have avoided a war for which the financial cost has been conservatively estimated at $800 billion.

Curtailing overclassification and all of its costs will be no easy task. Nonetheless, there is a simple first step the president can take. Last November, an independent advisory board provided Obama with recommendations for reshaping the classification system. Its first recommendation was to establish a White House-led interagency steering committee to drive classification reform. The president — who has not yet acted on the board’s suggestions — should appoint such a committee and charge it with reducing the size and scope of the classification system. Excessive government secrecy is something we simply cannot afford.

Elizabeth Goitein is co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.