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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