New Proposal to Curb Government Secrecy

October 5, 2011

Study Shows Needless Secrecy Harms National Security, Corrodes Democracy

Contact: Erik Opsal, erik.opsal@nyu.edu, 646-292-8356

Washington, DC – A new study concludes that unnecessary classification is detrimental to national security efforts and democratic decision making – and offers a proposal to curb abuse and needless secrecy.

The report comes as the Obama administration’s advisory committee on classification is preparing recommendations for reform, in advance of a forthcoming executive order. The proposal contained in the report is currently under consideration by the advisory committee.

“Excessive secrecy prevents federal agencies from sharing information internally, with other agencies, and with state and local law enforcement, making it more difficult to draw connections and anticipate threats,” reads the report. “Unnecessary secrecy also threatens national security by undermining respect for the classification system and thereby promoting leaking by government officials.”

“Keeping some secrets may be essential to national security,” said report co-author Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “But keeping too many secrets actually makes us less safe.”

The report also finds that unnecessary classification corrodes the democratic process.  “Withholding information allows the executive branch to insulate itself from public criticism and, in some cases, congressional and judicial oversight, which in turn increases the likelihood of unwise, illegal, and improper activity,” the report states.

Overclassification is rampant within the federal government. In 92 percent of cases where a member of the public asked an agency to review particular records for declassification, the agency determined that at least some of the requested records need not remain classified.

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have tried to impose common-sense limits on classification, but there is a persistent gap between these regulations and actual practice. According to the report, numerous incentives push officials to classify documents — including the culture of secrecy that pervades some government agencies, the desire to conceal governmental misconduct or incompetence, and the fear of sanctions for mistakenly releasing sensitive information. By contrast, there are essentially no incentives to refrain from or challenge improper classification, and those who classify documents improperly are not held accountable.

“We propose a solution designed to rebalance the incentives, primarily by introducing accountability into the system,” says Goitein.

The report contains six recommendations that could be implemented as a pilot project at one or more executive agencies. Among these recommendations:

  • When classifying documents, officials would be required to complete short electronic forms in which they would provide explanations for their classification decisions.
  • In each agency with classification authority, the Office of the Inspector General would conduct “spot audits” of classifiers to evaluate their explanations and to identify those who exhibit serious tendencies to overclassify. An unsatisfactory audit result would result in follow-up audits every six months.
  • Successive unsatisfactory audit results would result in mandatory escalating consequences for the individual classifier, agency management, and the agency itself. Consequences at the individual level would begin with remedial training, progress to a note in the classifier’s personnel file, and culminate with temporary or permanent revocation of classification authority.

The report concludes: “By implementing a pilot project along [these] lines . . . and introducing accountability into the system, the government can begin to change the incentives that have produced overclassification for so many decades. The result will be a more transparent government and a better-functioning democracy.”

For more information, or to schedule an interview, please contact Erik Opsal at erik.opsal@nyu.edu or 646-292-8356.