According to a recent analysis from a Washington research firm, U.S. officials classify material that ought to be either public or shared more widely inside the government, impeding the goals of national defense and risking legislative oversight of the executive branch.
The findings, which were released by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center on Tuesday, were based on interviews with numerous current and former officials from the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, the State Department, and other organizations, as well as congressional staffers. They were gleaned from a nearly two-year review of the American classification system.
The examination takes place while the White House and Congress work to decrease the enormous amounts of classified records kept by executive branch organizations. Senior officials have meanwhile stated that the White House’s choice to share intelligence about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine last year with allies and the public showed that there is real value in doing so.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the White House is presently drafting an executive order that will reform the classification system. Generally speaking, every recent presidential administration aside from Donald Trump’s has issued some sort of executive order modifying classification policies, but experts on government transparency claim that those prior efforts haven’t really done much to stop the problem of overclassification from getting worse.
The study cited instances when excessive classification appeared to compromise American national security, such as by slowing down military innovation, complicating military space operations, and impeding private sector collaboration to strengthen defense against cyberattacks.
In an interview, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the NPEC, said, “What I heard was quite appalling: Officials who had lost the plot, keeping our soldiers, innovators, friends, legislators, and the public in the dark on key information needed to defend the nation.”
The NPEC, a neutral organization established in the 1990s with a focus on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and other WMDs, received grant funds from many foundations to research the problem of overclassification. One of the U.S. government’s most strictly guarded categories of secrets is information regarding nuclear weapons.
After the discovery of confidential documents in the homes and offices of President Biden, Former President Trump, and Former Vice President Mike Pence, the security of sensitive material by the U.S. government has recently garnered considerable attention. Justice Department special counsels are looking into the situations involving Messrs. Biden and Trump.
Current and past officials have stated that documents that originate in the federal government are normally unclassified until an official or automated software brands them as secret, top secret, or another category. Overclassification, however, is a result of bureaucratic tendencies, according to officials, who tend to hide potentially embarrassing or problematic material from the public or to interpret classification guidelines cautiously out of concern that a document may include sensitive information.
The amount of information the government considers to be classified is unknown to the general public, although proponents of open government estimate it to number in the billions of records. Recent recommendations by senators, government representatives, and academics to use automated technology to sort and declassify more files are supported by the NPEC report.
The “extreme secrecy” surrounding so-called special access programs, a highly restricted and compartmentalized category of information that has rapidly increased in recent years, caused specific problems, according to the analysis. According to persons familiar with the situation, White House workers writing the next executive order are concentrating on reforming special access programs.
The report stated that “Even the expert staff on the few congressional committees that are intended to monitor these SAPs rarely have access—and when they do, the restrictions and the numerous programs are so stringent that meaningful supervision is practically impossible.”
One of the problems cited in the paper is the abundance of ambiguous and inconsistent manuals for classifying government secrets, which has caused uncertainty about what counts as classified and forced US officials to restrict access to an excessive amount of material.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s initiative was highlighted in the study. It was started around seven years ago after officials discovered it was taking too long to communicate photographs and information with soldiers on the front lines. According to the study, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were occasionally forced to forgo waiting for the delivery of classified photographs in favor of purchasing lower resolution data from unclassified commercial sources.
After investigating, the NGA found that its employees were using 65 distinct categorization guidebooks, many of which were leftover from the agencies that had been merged into the NGA upon its creation. The agency merged its manuals into a single, constantly updated manual as a solution, which the report hailed as a success.
The NGA claimed in a statement that its new approach to categorization has enabled it disseminate its intelligence products more freely and widely after briefing the NPEC working group in September 2021.