Manning and Snowden: Wakeup Call on Overclassification

If there’s one lesson to learn from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s that America’s classification system is broken. Officials concede that between 50 and 90 percent of the nation’s secrets are not worthy of their classification label.

July 10, 2013

Crossposted from The National Law Journal.

If there’s one lesson to learn from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s that America’s classification system is broken. Both cases raise legitimate questions about the ever-expanding cloak of government secrecy. Roughly 4.2 million people in America have security clearances, but nearly a third of them, like Snowden, are not even on the government’s payroll.

Although these people are privy to some secrets that are needed to maintain the nation’s security, the fact that an Army private and an outside contractor even had access to what is considered some of the country’s most sensitive national security information is a telling indicator that the nation’s secrecy policy has already failed.

In Manning’s case, much of what he released should not have been classified to begin with. One of the cables leaked by Manning described a wedding in Dagestan, a Russian Republic, in detail fit for Wikipedia more than WikiLeaks: “On the first day the groom’s family and the bride’s family simultaneously hold separate receptions.” Another leaked cable from the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan was nothing short of gossip, reporting that England’s Prince Andrew told British and Canadian businessmen, “The Americans don’t understand geography. Never have.”

Unlike Snowden, a computer expert for a premier government contractor, Manning had no special skills when he was awarded a Top Secret security clearance shortly after finishing basic training. And unlike Snowden, who has claimed to have carefully selected his disclosures, Manning conducted an indiscriminate document dump—the largest single unauthorized disclosure of classified material in U.S. history.

The tally is staggering. Manning leaked 92,000 reports of military actions in Afghanistan, 392,000 similar reports from Iraq and 251,000 U.S. diplomatic cables from 180 countries. Although Manning recklessly released documents identifying informants by name, thereby putting their lives at risk, government officials told Congress Manning’s disclosures were merely “embarrassing but not damaging.”

Current and former government officials concede that between 50 and 90 percent of the nation’s secrets are not worthy of their classification label. The broken classification system is hardly breaking news. Back in 1956, a Department of Defense Committee on Classified Information warned that “overclassification had reached serious proportion.” By 1994, a joint CIA-Department of Defense commission pointedly found “the classification system…had grown out of control.”

The inclination for intelligence employees is to always deem information classified, whether it’s necessary or not. Stamping a document with a classified label is the safe choice. As The Washington Post revealed in its “Top Secret America” series, however, useful intelligence is sometimes buried under mountains of secret information. A case in point is the failure to detain Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded a plane in 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underwear. Reports that Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria worried that his son had become interested in radical teaching and disappeared in Yemen, a reference to a Nigerian radical in Yemen, and the partial name of someone in Yemen—all references to Abdulmutallab—were lost among a flood of ostensibly secret information flowing through the National Counterterrorism Center.

One solution to this state of affairs is to change the incentives. According to a proposal by the Brennan Center for Justice, officials should face sanction if they classify material that should be public. Instead of the risk falling entirely on the side of making material public that should be secret, this plan balances the risks, forcing officials to weigh more carefully what should be secret and what should not.

Neither Manning nor Snowden are heroes. Both violated the law and deserve prosecution. Yet, as various bodies have warned for more than 50 years, and as Manning’s case shows, the government is hiding too much. Holding accountable those people who create the needless secrets in the first place may be the key to balancing the equation.

R. Kyle Alagood, a student at Louisiana State University Law Center, works on special projects at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.