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Overclassification and National Security Whistleblowing

Published: January 4, 2013

The authority to classify documents exists to protect information that could threaten national security if it got into the wrong hands. It is one of the most important tools our government has to keep us safe. But many secrets “protected” by the classification system pose no danger to the nation’s safety.

On the contrary, needless classification—“overclassification”—jeopardizes national security. 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. The 9/11 Commission found that the failure to share information contributed to intelligence gaps in the months before the September 11, 2001, attacks, cautioning that “[c]urrent security requirements nurture overclassification and excessive compartmentation of information among agencies.”

Our classification system also inhibits national security whistleblowing. Government employees who discover classified evidence of government misconduct currently have no meaningful way to bring the matter to the public’s attention. Even if the information was wrongly classified for the very purpose of hiding wrongdoing, whistleblowers who contact the media face criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act. This state of affairs greatly undermines accountability in our national security system.  

The Brennan Center is working to ensure that our classification system is used only to protect legitimate secrets and not to deny the public information that it has every right to know about our government’s national security policies and practices.

Our Proposal to Reduce Overclassification

The Brennan Center’s report, Reducing Overclassification Through Accountability, analyzes the factors leading to overclassification and proposes specific recommendations for reform. Several of our proposals were incorporated by the Public Interest Declassification Board, a presidential advisory committee, in its November 2012 recommendations to the president. The report also was cited by the Department of Energy in a report describing the agency’s efforts to improve its classification guidance.

Our Events

  • The Brennan Center joined with the Government Accountability Project to host a panel discussion on national security whistleblowers, featuring former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake.
  • The Brennan Center released its report, Reducing Overclassification Through Accountability, at a National Press Club event featuring former Representative Christopher Shays; President George W. Bush’s chief information security officer, J. William Leonard; Public Interest Declassification Board member Jennifer Sims; and New York Times reporter Scott Shane.

Our Advocacy