The government’s classification system is broken and overwhelmed.
There is an ever-increasing flood of records that are classified digitally, every day, with the click of a button. Yet, our declassification processes are paper-based, disconnected, and cannot keep up. The result is information which should no longer be classified, including historical records subject to mandatory declassification as well as information designated for release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), continues to pile up in obsolete databases. This broken system costs the American taxpayer while undermining the openness and transparency on which our democracy depends.
The seriousness of this situation has been evident for years. The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), the office in the National Archives that reports on classification, has warned that there is a “deluge” of classified information that “will continue to grow unabated.” Similarly, the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), which Congress established to identify barriers to declassification, has reported for years that the classification system can no longer handle the “exponential growth of digital information.”
Under the current system, costly resources are used to hold on to records that no longer require classification resulting in an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars. The cost of the government’s classification system now exceeds $18 billion annually. Additionally, when records are kept classified for reasons that have nothing to do with national security, historians, journalists, public watchdogs and all Americans are denied their right to research historical events or examine the actions of their government to hold it accountable. As the line between classification for national security and pointless secrecy is blurred, public trust in government erodes.
Fortunately, there is consensus that the declassification system should be modernized with achievable technical solutions. Records can be “tagged” so that when information is no longer suitable for classification, the records which include that information are easily identified for release. AI and machine learning can be used to find buried records appropriate for declassification. And when it is time to declassify records that include information from multiple government agencies, those agencies can be connected electronically rather than having to rely on couriers physically walking paper copies around Washington.
In order to reform our classification system, someone needs to be put in charge of overseeing desperately overdue reform. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is already responsible for the management of classified information and the protection of sensitive sources and methods. The DNI’s responsibilities include integration and the development of uniform policies, not just within the Intelligence Community, but across the whole of the federal government in the case of security clearances. For these reasons, our legislation, the Declassification Reform Act of 2020, directs the DNI to take charge, a sensible approach that has also been recommended by the PIDB.
This modest reform does not resolve every problem associated with how the government classifies and declassifies information. Too much information is classified, and administrations from both parties have allowed political considerations to interfere in the declassification process. But when records no longer require classification, neither disagreements about national security nor politics are to blame. It is an out-of-date system in need of leadership to reform it.
A modernized declassification system will help eliminate years of backlog and create a more efficient system. More importantly, it will save taxpayer dollars and Americans will gain access to countless records as long-buried documents will be released, allowing us to better understand our own history.
Moran, R-Kansas, and Wyden, D-Ore., are co-sponsors of the Declassification Reform Act of 2020.