Obama and America’s culture of secrecy

October 14, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Old habits die hard. By the time you read to the bottom of this column, around 1,600 U.S. government documents and communications will have been classified in the name of national security.

If past habits serve as a guide, many if not most of the “confidential,” “secret” and “top secret” markings will fall under the label “overclassification,” a practice that stretches back to the 1940s and has been criticized in a long string of reports by high-powered congressional commissions and academic experts.

The latest comes from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. It says needless classification actually harms national security because it acts as a barrier to the exchange of information between government agencies and corrodes democracy. “Secret programs stifled public debate on the decisions that shaped our response to the September 11 attacks,” the report notes.

Classification forced Americans to rely on leaked documents to debate such questions as the interrogation of detainees in secret overseas prisons or the government’s eavesdropping, without warrants, on Americans’ telephone calls. “The classification system must be reformed if we are to preserve the critical role that transparent government plays in a functioning democracy,” says the report.

It was released against the background of another debate that relies on leaks rather than a government explanation – the killing by a drone strike in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al Qaeda. The same strike killed another American citizen, Samir Khan, the editor of an al Qaeda magazine. There has been no comprehensive official statement yet on the legal basis for these killings from the administration of President Barack Obama.

On his first day in office, Obama issued a memo – much praised at the time – that said:  “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government … Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.” He followed up the pledge nine months later with an executive order that created the National Declassification Center. Its task: deal with a backlog of more than 400 million classified documents.

And last October, the president signed into law the Reducing Over-Classification Act. Jane Harman, who at the time chaired the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee and introduced the bill, defined overclassification as “the practice of stamping intelligence ‘secret’ for the wrong reasons, often to protect turf or avoid embarrassment.” (The law itself does not define the term).

So what have these steps done to change what the Brennan Center’s report calls a culture of secrecy in government agencies? So far, not much. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, the agency that oversees the security classification system, there were 224,734 “original decisions” to classify information in 2010, a 22.6 percent increase over the previous year. The number of “derivative classifications” totaled more than 76 million. (The two statistics translate into the number given in the opening paragraph of this column).


The term “derivative classification” applies to people who have access to classified information and need to repeat it in communications with their colleagues or work of their own. How many people have access to classified information?

The government released the number for the first time in September and it is so huge, it boggles the mind — 4.2 million, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, America’s intelligence czar.

More than a million hold top secret clearances, including 525,000 contractors working for the government. Top secret information is defined as material whose disclosure would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

The number of people with access to classified information vastly exceeded previous estimates and surprised intelligence experts. But is in line with the huge expansion of military and intelligence operations after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Today’s U.S. intelligence budget is 2.5 times as large as it was in 2001.

In this vast universe, changing the culture of secrecy is difficult no matter what the directives on classification may be, said Steven Aftergood, who puts out a weekly newsletter, Secrecy News, for the Federation of American Scientists and has tracked classification policies for two decades. In his view, the Obama administration’s transparency policy lacks coherence and its implementation lacks consistency.

The Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein, lead author of the new report, says the current system suffers from an “implementation gap” caused by a skewed incentive structure that all but guarantees overclassification. There is no downside in erring on the side of classifying information that deserves no classification but there can be grave consequences for revealing sensitive material.

One of the Center’s recommendations for reforming the system – cash prizes for officials who draw attention to improper classification. The unorthodox idea could be put to the test in a pilot program designed to show the benefits of breaking the culture of secrecy. “We are hoping to convince one or two agencies to try something different,” said Goitein. So far, no takers.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Agent Scully: “What dark work goes on inside their impossible machines… cloaked from us by invisible forces? If they know our secrets, why can’t we know theirs?”

Cigarette Smoking Man: “You damn me for my secrets, but you’re afraid to speak the truth.” (X-Files)

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

Those advocating declassification always sound so eager to go all Woodward and Bernstein on the agencies in question. Government bureaucrats have no incentive to cooperate.

Posted by Thoth | Report as abusive

Let’s face it, it’s so nutty it’s gotta be kept secret.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration _of_the_Jews_to_the_Holy_Land

Posted by Tiu | Report as abusive

Part of the problem is that we are really bad at derivative classification. We Intelink a document that was previously over-classified and use it to derivatively classify the doc we’re working on, keeping that overclassificaiton alive. We need a central site for Security Classifcation Guides and Senior Intelligence Officers should have to approve derivative classifaction. Also, the numbers (Security Clearances) are misleading because nearly every one in the military has a Secret clearance. (Even the Chaplians)

Posted by AnonIntelBubba | Report as abusive

No one writes about the Wikileaks state department documents anymore. I tried to read a few dozen. Other than the videotape of the gunship battle in Baghdad that was the cause of death of a Reuters reporter, several possibly unarmed men and several children in the van, they did not contain information that seemed to say more than articles I used to read In Foreign Affairs Journal.

The Journals present it in more compact and coherent form. But it was interesting to see how diplomats speak to each other and the array of subjects they discuss: much more than I thought and far more than I can remember. Unless one is in the business of government or journalism it just isn’t worth the sheer slogging haul of trying to read 250,000 documents. It was also all out of date.

But secrecy of documents is not the issue. Secrecy of legal processes and cases that invoke the right to kill, imprison, or deprive them of their property is. A nation lives with internal secrets and its citizens have a right to their privacy. But they do not have to waste time and resources second guessing each other or building elaborate and expensive defenses against each other, usually. If they did it would be called a civil war. But urban life is apparently crawling with video surveillance equipment that never seems to be where the next shoot out or other relatively minor catastrophe occurs. It is expensive to own and maintain and may not be worth the trouble. It has helped apprehend robbers.

There seem to be more problems in broad day light that are making economic life difficult for billions of people than secret issues of defense strategy.

When the Titanic struck the iceberg the captain tried to keep it secret but it got too obvious what was happening. And actually the crew didn’t know precisely what was going on at all times. They didn’t have enough factual information about the distribution of lifeboats or the location of other ships in the area. Their secrets were dwarfed by their ignorance.

Maybe the government uses classification as a mnemonic devise to remind itself that the information is important at all. I wonder how much is ever looked at twice? It only works if human heads incorporate it, understand it and can use it. If many of them don’t see the information, how effective can it be and was it worthwhile collecting it at all?

They also use it to maintain order within the organization. It insures that all the employees are dependent on the chain of command. It can be very manipulative and nefarious. The mafia liked it secrets too.

You write some of the most enjoyable articles Mr. Debusmann

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

[…] Read Story Here… Share this:TwitterFacebook This entry was posted in U.S. News. Bookmark the permalink. […]

Posted by Obama and America’s culture of secrecy | Victors Post | Report as abusive

[…] of reports by high-powered congressional commissions and academic experts.” Read more > http://blogs.reuters.com/bernddebusmann/ 2011/10/14/obama-and-americas-culture-of -secrecy/ Share and Enjoy: Posted in North America, Reuters Tags: America, Barack Obama, Bernd Debusmann, […]

Posted by Obama and Americas Culture of Secrecy | Reuters | Callistecomm.com | Report as abusive

[…] Bernd Debusmann Tags: Elizabeth Goitein, Bernd Debusmann Bernd Debusmann, Law School, Samir Khan […]

Posted by Bernd Debusmann | Report as abusive

[…] know some specifics about our classification authority structure and process.Currently, more than 4.2 million people have classification clearance, while 1 million hold Top Secret clearance. But even though there are literally millions of […]

Posted by Bradley Manning Support Network » The Scale of American Overclassification | Report as abusive

[…] more than 4.2 million people have classification clearance, while 1 million hold Top Secret clearance. But even though there are literally millions of […]

Posted by The Scale of American Overclassification « Nathan L Fuller | Report as abusive

Blogs to read…

[…] Here is a wonderful blog you will probably find intriguing that we really encourage you […]…

Posted by Anwar Sadhe | Report as abusive

Woman of Alien…

Great function you have got done, this page is really neat with wonderful facts. Time is God’s method of retaining every thing from occurring at once….

Posted by Shawanda Arca | Report as abusive