How secrecy structures power

Rosa Brooks writes: [C]lassified information is the currency of the realm inside the national security sausage-making machine. Increasingly, it’s the only way to be special.

You don’t have a security clearance? You’re no one. You have a secret-level clearance? I’m sorry, a top-secret clearance is required for you to be part of this meeting. You have a top-secret clearance? Regrettably, this document is part of a compartmented special-access program and you’re not read-in. In fact, it’s part of a waived, unattributed special access program that only I and four other people know about! Sorry ‘bout that.

As the national security bureaucracy has expanded and more and more classified documents are produced, more and more people need security clearances in order to do their jobs. But as more and more people receive security clearances, the iron law of supply and demand kicks in, and the value of clearances goes down.

According to a 2010 Washington Post series on “Top Secret America,” an estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret clearances. That’s not a very exclusive club: Any secret held by 854,000 people isn’t much of a secret. Throw in the people with lower-level clearances and we get up to more than 4 million, or nearly 2 percent of the adult population of the United States. Who let those guys into the club?

As a result, we keep finding new ways to distinguish between levels and types of access, and more and more documents are (often reflexively) given a high classification, even when there’s really no secret to keep. The U.S. government’s Information Security Oversight Office reported that 92 million decisions to classify information were made in 2011, representing a 20 percent increase in classification decisions from 2010 and a 40 percent increase from 2009.

And as I said, this problem isn’t new. An excellent 2011 report by the Brennan Center for Justice offers some choice glimpses into history. By 1956, only a decade and a half after an executive order signed by FDR launched the modern classification system, a DOD panel was already warning that “overclassification has reached serious proportions.” In 1970, a Defense Science Board task force reported that “the volume of scientific and technical information that is classified could profitably be decreased by perhaps as much as 90 percent.” In 1985, yet another DOD committee concluded sadly that “too much information appears to be classified.” In 1994, a joint CIA-DOD commission found that “the classification system… has grown out of control.” [Continue reading…]

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