- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The official in charge of information security at the Pentagon told lawmakers yesterday that at least half of the information the U.S. government classifies every year should not be kept secret.

“How about if I say 50-50?” Carol Haave told the House Government Reform national security, emerging threats and international relations subcommittee, when asked to quantify the problem of overclassification.

Ms. Haave, the deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, said classification generally was not done maliciously, but because “people have a tendency to err on the side of caution.”

The hearing was one in an unprecedented summer-recess series held to consider the recommendations of the September 11 commission, which found “current security requirements nurture overclassification” and create a barrier to the information-sharing needed to fight terrorism.

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, the panel’s chairman, called the system for safeguarding the nation’s secrets “incomprehensibly complex” and “so bloated it often does not distinguish between the critically important and the comically irrelevant.”

Mr. Shays said there was broad agreement that many of the 14 million pieces of information the government classified last year did not need to be secret, but that estimates varied wildly on how bad the problem is.

“Some estimate 10 percent of current secrets should never have been classified. Others put the extent of overclassification as high as 90 percent,” he said.

The administration’s secrecy watchdog, Bill Leonard, head of the Information Security Oversight Office, told legislators that too much information is being classified in violation of President Bush’s executive order governing secrecy.

That order, introduced in March, says information can lawfully be classified only if its “unauthorized disclosure … reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security … .”

The problem, said Bill Crowell, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency who has served on a number of commissions inquiring into classification and secrecy, is that the system dated from the Cold War.

“The current system assumes that it is possible to determine in advance who needs to know particular information, and that the risks associated with disclosure are greater than the potential benefits of wider information-sharing,” he said.

As a result, there are significant incentives to protect information, but none to share it.

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