Manning, Snowden Trigger First-Of-Its-Kind Secrecy Review

A first-of-its-kind review by the Government Accountability Office will examine whether security agencies are keeping too many secrets and how officials decide what information to deem classified and what to release to the public. Lawmakers and security experts have long complained that the government makes too much information classified and routinely keeps information from public ...

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<> on July 27, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.

A first-of-its-kind review by the Government Accountability Office will examine whether security agencies are keeping too many secrets and how officials decide what information to deem classified and what to release to the public.

Lawmakers and security experts have long complained that the government makes too much information classified and routinely keeps information from public view that poses no risk to national security. But one member of Congress is also concerned that by making so much information secret, the government is increasing the number of people who have security clearances--more than 5 million government employees and contractors today--who could one day decide to reveal classified information without authorization. In effect, the study is asking whether by keeping so many secrets, the government is making leaks more likely.

"There's a real problem with over-classification in the national security arena," Rep. Duncan Hunter, who first requested the study from the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, told Foreign Policy. "There's real classification inflation that puts information that should be available to the public out of view and creates a degree of exposure by widening access to sensitive information that should otherwise be limited. In the end, it's about protecting information that truly needs to be withheld for security reasons and ensuring both process and protocol prevent unauthorized disclosures or incorrect identifications."

A first-of-its-kind review by the Government Accountability Office will examine whether security agencies are keeping too many secrets and how officials decide what information to deem classified and what to release to the public.

Lawmakers and security experts have long complained that the government makes too much information classified and routinely keeps information from public view that poses no risk to national security. But one member of Congress is also concerned that by making so much information secret, the government is increasing the number of people who have security clearances–more than 5 million government employees and contractors today–who could one day decide to reveal classified information without authorization. In effect, the study is asking whether by keeping so many secrets, the government is making leaks more likely.

"There’s a real problem with over-classification in the national security arena," Rep. Duncan Hunter, who first requested the study from the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, told Foreign Policy. "There’s real classification inflation that puts information that should be available to the public out of view and creates a degree of exposure by widening access to sensitive information that should otherwise be limited. In the end, it’s about protecting information that truly needs to be withheld for security reasons and ensuring both process and protocol prevent unauthorized disclosures or incorrect identifications."

The GAO has examined aspects of the classification system, but there has never been a comprehensive study of how the government makes security information a secret.

Specifically, the report will review the guidance and processes that the Defense Department uses to determine what information should be classified or remain unclassified, according to a member of Hunter’s staff. The GAO also will examine to what extent the DOD has internal controls to review classification decisions to ensure they’re being made appropriately. It will also study what effect "inappropriate classification" has on information sharing and how effective the process is for declassifying information, the staff member said.

The study will be completed amidst the backdrop of an ongoing debate about government secrecy in the intelligence arena. In the wake of unauthorized leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, as well as Army private Bradley Manning, lawmakers have debated the merits and weaknesses of the classification system.

"The recent disclosure of classified information regarding U.S. national security programs requires a thorough assessment of the current classification system," Hunter wrote in a letter last month requesting the review. "With access to classified information contingent on the issuance of security clearances, overclassification stands to dangerously expand access to material that should ordinarily be limited."

Twitter: @shaneharris

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