Congressional auditors said Wednesday they are launching a first-of-its-kind review of the system for safeguarding national security secrets, with a view to measuring the scale of a widely understood but unquantified problem — “classification inflation.”
“There’s a real problem with over-classification in the national security arena,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Committee on Armed Services.
Mr. Hunter, who requested the review by the Government Accountability Office, Congress‘ investigative arm, said classification inflation keeps secret “information that should be available to the public” and makes the system less secure by needlessly expanding the number of people who need clearances to do their jobs.
His original request last month asked for a “comprehensive review” of the government’s entire classification system, but spokesman Joe Kasper said Wednesday the review will be limited to just the Defense “to start with.”
“This is a huge task,” Mr. Kasper said. “GAO has to take it piece by piece … To get somewhere, you have to start somewhere.”
Mr. Kasper said the GAO will examine whether the Pentagon has adequate internal controls “to ensure that [classification] decisions are being made in an appropriate manner.” The review also will look at the impact of “inappropriate classification decisions,” and consider the efficacy of declassification.
The Defense Department is “by far the most prolific classifier” in the federal government, said Steven Aftergood, a government transparency advocate at the Federation of American Scientists. A review limited to the Pentagon “will go a long way to address the larger [all-of-government] issues of classification, declassification and over-classification,” he said.
However, the way the review’s objectives were drafted “displays a certain degree of naivety,” Mr. Aftergood said. Talking about “inappropriate classification decisions assumes that there is an objective standard for such decisions. There isn’t. It’s a subjective decision.”
Still, he said the review is the review “very interesting and significant.”
“People [in Congress] are sensing, accurately, that there is a problem with the way the government classifies information,” said Mr. Aftergood, a scholar who publishes a daily e-letter Secrecy News. “Where there is less clarity is what do about it.”