As the eyes of reporters, Congress and the public are on the Justice Department’s investigation into the classified documents that former President Donald Trump removed from the White House, a recent report on another critical issue of the government secrecy went unnoticed.
This report was delivered to the Biden administration on July 26 and was authored by Mark Bradley, director of the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office, which is responsible for overseeing the safeguarding of critical classified information. The report warns of an “urgent need” to reform the current classification and declassification system – warning that secrecy itself is spiraling out of control. Government officials classify so much that it becomes impossible to prioritize and protect truly sensitive information, let alone review classified records so they can eventually be released to the public. “We can no longer keep our heads above the tsunami,” Bradley wrote in his letter introducing ISOO’s annual report.
The security classification system is designed to screen information based on its level of sensitivity, ranging from confidential to top secret. Anyone wishing to obtain a security clearance to handle these materials must undergo rigorous background checks and training. But being approved for a clearance level does not automatically grant access to classified information. Only those who already have access to a specific program’s information can grant others permission to see it, and only if the requestor has an explicit reason for their “need to know.” The system gives the impression that only a select few are authorized to deal with carefully defined categories of truly dangerous information.
But these rules do not describe what is actually happening. In 2017 alone, officials told ISOO they stamped something with “confidential”, “secret” or “top secret” more than 49 million times. At the time, that seemed like an improvement. In 2012, similar self-reported data totaled more than 95 million classifications, or three new state secrets per second. Bradley now says much of the data from those earlier reports “was neither accurate nor reliable”, but cannot offer better estimates. and so many special access programs – which may require additional security measures and carry the designation “Sensitive Information Compartmented” – have proliferated throughout government that Bradley could not create a comprehensive list.
The ISOO report warns that excessive secrecy and underinvestment in declassification are contributing to a lack of trust in government, which recent polls show is approaching historic lows. The number of people who currently have some level of government security clearance to access classified information is nearly 3 million.
Trump claimed he had a standing order to declassify the files that ended up at Mar-a-Lago – but there is no evidence of such an order and many officials have called the claim ridiculous. The thing is, declassifying a single document involves page-by-page inspection and often requires approval from multiple departments and agencies. Yet the government employs less than 2,000 people to review, redact and determine which of these documents can possibly be released.
Since World War II, in the early days of today’s security classification system, some information has been kept secret simply to cover up incompetence. For example, in 1948, the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, David Lilienthal, was appalled at the “lack of integrity” in the way officials claimed that the “thin” intelligence they had about the Soviet nuclear program were too deep and too sensitive to share. with Congress. Yet, nearly 75 years later, this information is still top secret.
Harry Truman estimated that 95% of American military secrets were actually revealed in the media. Richard Nixon complained: “The CIA doesn’t tell me anything that I didn’t read three days earlier in the New York Times. Howard Baker, a longtime senator and Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, said that in his entire career he had learned only one secret that remained.
But many of them tend to pay attention only to classified information related to their specific functions and are unaware of how common knowledge it already is.
Some classified information is really sensitive. But if so much is treated as secret, the public cannot know what government officials are doing on our behalf. When historians look back to this time, they should read the ISOO report to understand the extent of classified information they are unlikely to be able to see. Bradley predicts that so much has been hidden “most will never be reviewed for declassification”. It is our history that is shrouded in secrecy.
Matthew Connelly is a professor of history at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book “The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals about America’s Top Secrets.”