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The Troubling Takeaway from Snowden’s Leaks: America Is Drowning in Secrets

The Troubling Takeaway from Snowden’s Leaks: America Is Drowning in Secrets

With his slow, steady stream of leaked NSA documents, Edward Snowden is offering a glimpse into what President Obama’s pledge of transparent government might have looked like — had he chosen to deliver on it.

When he arrived in office, Obama declared that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history" and rolled out a series of historic declassifications, including the Bush administration’s legal justifications for so-called enhanced interrogation tactics and the size of American nuclear stockpiles. Each of these decisions broke with long-established precedent and seemed to signal a new era of government openness.

Now, by contrast, Obama’s record on transparency is coming to be defined by his aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act.

But in his war on leakers, Obama is also a victim of his circumstances. The U.S. national security establishment reflexively classifies information; in an apt metaphor for the problem, the exact number of classified documents is itself classified. As the number of secret documents balloons, the chances of classified information being made public increases, putting more pressure on the president to figure out a way to cap the geyser of unauthorized disclosures. Call it the perpetual classification machine of the surveillance era: As more information is classified, more documents leak, and as leaks increase, the instinct to classify grows stronger, which only leads to more classification, which leads to … well you see where this is headed.

On the heels of Snowden’s revelations, the Government Accountability Office has been ordered to review this problem of over-classification within the national security community. What they will find is a hornet’s nest of classification procedures and instincts, all geared toward keeping the government’s dirty laundry out of public view.

The scale of the over-classification problem has now become so large that picturing it requires some serious imagination. According to a November 2012 report from the Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory committee established by Congress, a single unnamed intelligence agency generates 1 petabyte of classified records every 18 months. "One petabyte of information is equivalent to ap­proximately 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text," the report dryly notes. So forget the massive government vault at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Secret government storage facilities are now something else entirely — rows upon rows of servers containing information that may never be examined.

So who decides what secrets the U.S. government gets to keep? That falls to the 2,326 people who, as of 2012, enjoyed something known as an "original classification authority"  — the individuals designated by the president to wield the proverbial "top secret" stamp. In 2012, they made 73,477 so-called "original classification decisions," which was a decrease of 42 percent from the previous year, according to an annual report by the president’s Information Security Oversight Office. Astoundingly, those figures only capture a portion of classified information. A separate category known as "derivative classification" decisions include "the act of incorporating, paraphrasing, restating, or generating in new form information that is already classified." The government made 95.2 million such decisions in 2012.

And there is little evidence to indicate that this mountain of information is classified for good reason. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said that 70 percent of the secret material he saw during the course of the commission’s work was "needlessly classified." Even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s director of security, Robert Rogalski, once admitted the same. "You’ll hear it said sometimes that if you put three people in a room, you’ll get four classification decisions," he joked in 2005.

According to Tom Blanton, the director of George Washington University’s National Security Archive, Obama does deserve some credit for his efforts to cut down on excessive classification. A 2010 executive order directed federal agencies to standardize their criteria for classification, in an effort to address one of the driving factors behind the increasing levels of classification. Before the executive order, hundreds of different classification standards existed across the government.

But even if Obama took positive steps early in his first term, his later policies have been marked by fundamental contradictions, according to Blanton. On the one hand, the administration took unprecedented steps to declassify long-held secrets. On the other hand, the administration now relentlessly pursues whistleblowers by using, of all things, the Espionage Act. And despite the fact that Obama has made the right noises on reining in classification, he has failed to get the national security establishment behind him. "The problem is that there has been a huge gap in the ongoing inertia — the resistance even — to the president’s orders in the national security bureaucracy," Blanton told FP.

The administration’s reaction to Snowden’s revelations have made the problems of classification all too clear. In the wake of the former NSA contractor’s astounding allegations, the administration has declassified only a handful of documents about the agency’s activities. The administration makes a forceful case in public to support the programs, but often fails to provide the documents. And it was only Wednesday that the White House finally declassified the court order compelling Verizon to turn over phone records in bulk — an order Snowden revealed nearly two months ago.

But this shouldn’t be all that surprising. The system currently in place sends a document up for declassification to each intelligence agency with a so-called "equity" for review. Each agency, then, has the ability to reject declassification or censor that document, setting an impossibly high bar for declassification. In effect, each agency has the ability to edit out an embarrassing tidbit in the name of national security.

The data on declassification reflect these hurdles. In 2012, agencies considered 44,921,864 pages for declassification. Of those, 19,850,541, or 44 percent, were declassified — declassification rate that was 7 percent lower than the previous year’s.

The intelligence community, of course, argues that its insistence on secrecy is warranted. But some of Snowden’s leaks are calling that  line of argument into question. The November 2012 report on declassification called the assessments of damage to national security as a result of unauthorized disclosure "more art than science," and it is difficult to see how several of the documents released by Snowden damage U.S. national interests. Blanton points to the NSA’s so-called "minimization procedures" for accidentally collecting information belonging to Americans as a prime example of a document whose release would have benefited public understanding of the agency’s activities without harm to national security.

In short, thanks to Snowden, we are beginning to see what a truly transparent Obama administration might have looked like.