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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.

  • R. Kyle Alagood
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.