Steven Aftergood: Telling Secrets





[Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists and writes the Secrecy News blog.]

Washington is bracing for another Wikileaks document dump later this week and the Pentagon is urging reporters not to publish the secret files from the Iraq war -- once again, the conversation has turned to whether or not there's a danger in releasing this information. But in a city full of fractious disagreements, there is one issue that nearly everyone in Washington agrees on: The overclassification of information in the name of national security has run amok. We need "effective measures to address the problem of overclassification," President Barack Obama stated last year. "We do overclassify," affirmed Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. at his confirmation hearing this summer. "We can be a lot more liberal, I think, about declassifying, and we should be," he added.

Excessive government secrecy is an evergreen concern -- as far back as 1956, a Defense Department study complained that overclassification had "reached serious proportions." This problem has serious ramifications throughout the vast national security bureaucracy. It impedes the flow of information across agency boundaries, obstructs the feedback mechanisms that keep policies and programs on track, conceals error and incompetence, undermines oversight and accountability, and fosters public ignorance on vital matters of national security and foreign policy.

Given the severity of this problem and the seemingly bipartisan will to devise a solution, it seems fitting that Congress passed -- and the president signed into law on Oct. 7 -- a set of remedial measures called the Reducing Over-Classification Act....


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