Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said excessive government secrecy feeds public mistrust and may be fostering a culture of leaks. (Allison Shelley / Getty Images)
Excessive government secrecy feeds public mistrust and may be fostering a culture of leaks, a Democratic lawmaker said Thursday in urging a fundamental re-look at the scope of the classification system.
“It totally undermines public confidence in our institutions,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said at the National Archives and Record Administration’s headquarters in downtown Washington. “We simply classify too much information for too long at too great a cost.”
Shaheen spoke during a meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a seven-member advisory panel that last December released a package of recommendations for modernizing the classification system. Shaheen incorporated some of those recommendations, such as requiring automatic declassification of records with short-lived sensitivity, into legislation introduced in August.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, is awaiting action by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; in a short interview, Shaheen said she hopes to get a hearing on the measure.
Later Thursday, the declassification board was also scheduled to meet with White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco; the board’s chairwoman, Nancy Soderberg, was optimistic that the Obama administration may be ready to act on last year’s recommendations, starting with creation of a high-level steering committee to guide implementation.
“What we’re looking for is a White House-led process to drive some of these decisions,” Soderberg told reporters. “In my own experience, that’s the only way you can get it done.”
The meeting came as the intelligence community struggles to manage the drip of revelations stemming from leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. While most people agree that the leaks have been “incredibly damaging” to the United States’ world standing, Shaheen said, they also show the need to examine the nation’s national security programs — including what warrants a secrecy stamp.
For intelligence agencies, the same digital technologies that let Snowden spirit away vast quantities of classified information are also swamping them with skyrocketing amounts of data that have to be managed.
Classified records, for example, generally have to be reviewed for declassification after 25 years. For the CIA, the number of pages falling in that category is approaching 12 million per year, Joseph Lambert, the agency’s director of information management services, said during the meeting. In a few years, he added afterwards, the annual total could be more than 100 million.