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Editorial: Obama must lead declassification effort

Dec. 9, 2012 - 02:32PM   |  
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The government’s system of classifying information is sorely outdated and incapable of responding in an era in which agencies annually measure accumulation of classified information in petabytes — by one estimate, just a single petabyte is the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets of text.

What is more, there is a hardened culture in government to overprotect information, which comes at the expense of effective information-sharing, accountability, government openness and transparency.

These were among the conclusions last week of a seven-member White House advisory panel called the Public Interest Declassification Board, composed mostly of former senior federal executives familiar with the ways of our national security and intelligence agencies.

The board’s report lays out a common-sense plan for modernizing how the government keep its secrets. Among the proposals:

• Streamline the three-tiered classification system — top secret, secret and confidential — to just top secret and a “lower level” tier. The board argues this should streamline the classification process, with only the most truly sensitive information being classified top secret; some would not be classified at all.

“Much more information should remain unclassified in the first instance,” the report said, noting government’s classifiers too often err on the side of protection and classify up.

• Agencies should offer “safe harbor” protection for classifiers who adhere to rigorous risk management practices and determine in good faith to classify information at a lower level or not at all. This will be critical in promoting needed culture change.

• Automatically declassify information without further review if was pre-decisional, tactical or operational and had only a short-lived sensitivity.

• Test the effectiveness of modern technologies — such as predictive analytics and artificial intelligence — to classify and declassify certain categories of information.

Many experts agree the government keeps too many secrets and for too long.

Last year, agencies spent a whopping $11.4 billion to keep and maintain their secrets, more than double the amount a decade ago, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration. That does not even include the costs incurred at the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

Moreover, from 2008 to 2011, the total number of classification decisions quadrupled to more than 92 million.

Reform will not be easy in this area. The board’s report already has prompted negative comments from some. According to the board’s report, “there is little recognition among government practitioners that there is a fundamental problem.”

President Obama must personally step in and demand agencies change tack, then appoint a White House official to ensure reforms actually take place.

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