A Republican congressman called Wednesday for an audit of all U.S. government secrecy standards, saying "classification inflation" is forcing federal agencies to issue more and more clearances, increasing the chances for leaks about vital programs.
"Overclassification," or labeling things secret that don't really need it, "stands to dangerously expand access to material that should ordinarily be limited," wrote Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a Marine combat veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Hunter said he was calling for the audit because of the recent leak about the National Security Agency's top secret data-gathering on telephone and Internet communications.
The leak calls for "a thorough assessment of the current classification system," Mr. Hunter said in a letter asking the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative branch, to perform the audit.
Five million people in the United States have security clearances, the majority of them contractors. More than 1.5 million have top secret clearances, like the one possessed by self-proclaimed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Congress is now grappling not only with the leaks but with whether the programs should have been secret in the first place.
On Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the value of two snooping programs that collect information on phone calls and computer traffic — details on both of which were revealed by Mr. Snowden's leaks — saying that they helped prevent terrorist attacks.
He said the government has to balance how open it is about the programs with the costs involved in letting potential enemies know about those tools.
"When you talk about transparency to the American public, you're going to give up something. You are going to be giving signals to our adversaries as to what our capabilities are," Mr. Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The laws and regulations that govern U.S. secrecy state that information should only be classified if its disclosure "reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security."
Critics say overclassification has gotten so bad that the figure for how much it costs the government's intelligence agencies to produce and store classified information is, itself, a secret.
Steven Aftergood, a government transparency advocate for the Federation of American Scientists, said the idea that knowing that cost could be damaging to security "defies credulity."
The intelligence value of such estimates to a foreign intelligence service would be "vanishingly small," he added, "particularly since their accuracy is variable and uncertain."
Mr. Hunter was also concerned that secrecy is sometimes used to hide information that federal bureaucrats find embarrassing, said Joe Kaspar, his spokesman. Mr. Kaspar said part of the problem is that there are no consequences for government employees who overclassify information.
Charles Young, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Office, said it would be a week or two before the agency made a decision about how to fulfill Mr. Hunter's request.
"We just received the letter so it needs to go through our review process before we have a decision," he said.
The office said it had not previously conducted a comprehensive study across the government of overclassification. Nonetheless, the agency's prior work does go some way to illustrate the scale of the problem.
In a June 2006 report about Pentagon classification, for instance, auditors examined a sample of 111 classified documents created by five different offices across the Department of Defense.
They questioned defense officials' classification decisions for more than a quarter of the 111 documents in question. Ninety-two of them, more than 80 percent, had at least one error in the special classification marks and labels such documents are supposed to bear, and more than half had multiple marking errors.
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