The U.S. government’s secrecy problem just got worse

Elizabeth Goitein writes: It is no secret that the United States government has too many secrets. Long before Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, experts and government insiders were raising alarms about “overclassification.” The Public Interest Declassification Board, an independent advisory committee created by Congress, reported in November 2012 that “present practices for classification and declassification of national security information are outmoded, unsustainable and keep too much information from the public.” Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice’s inspector general issued a review of the department’s classification practices, concluding that “DOJ is susceptible to misclassification.”

At least some of the secrecy tidal wave can be attributed to an explosion in the amount of information — of all kinds — that the government generates. Since the beginning of the modern classification system in 1940, officials have classified documents unnecessarily, whether by rote or to hide embarrassing information. In the era of typewriters and carbon copies, however, the amount of secret paperwork generated was comprehensible in scale. Today, any individual item of classified information may generate hundreds or even thousands of classified emails or intranet posts. When combined with the dramatic growth of the U.S. national security establishment, the data revolution has turned overclassification into a multi-petabyte problem. In fiscal year 2012 alone, there were more than 95 million decisions to classify information.

But the increase in secrecy is not simply quantitative; it is qualitative, too. The government has begun to advance bold new justifications for classifying information that threaten to erode the principled limits that have existed — in theory, if not always in practice — for decades. The cost of these efforts, if they remain unchecked, may be the American public’s ability to hold its government accountable. [Continue reading…]

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