At a time when former communist nations are opening their archives to public scrutiny, the U.S. government has done little to reduce excessive government secrecy at home. The end of the Cold War provides an unprecedented opportunity to promote greater openness in Government.
All governments confront a fundamental tension between the need for secrecy and the need for public accountability. A degree of secrecy is necessary to promote national security. But secrecy is also the enemy of accountability, and accountability is crucial to democratic government.
Certain information must be kept secret for reasons of national security. The openness of any democratic government is bound to vary with national security circumstances. Greater secrecy is obviously necessary in times of war or when foreign espionage threats are severe. The Cold War produced an extraordinary amount of secrecy in our government--perhaps too much. The Cold War has ended, though, and our security situation has changed. It is time to reexamine the U.S. government's mix of secrecy and openness.
Current classification policy was set in 1982 by President Reagan. This policy was a creature of the Cold War, and it reversed what had been a three-decade trend toward greater openness. As a result, the volume of classified material increased throughout the 1980s. Almost 7 million new documents are now cloaked in secrecy each year. The Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense classify information--but so do the Department of Commerce and the Federal Maritime Commission. Over 70 government agencies currently classify information for reasons of national security.
Even by Cold War standards, far too much information is classified. A General Accounting Office study of secrecy at the Pentagon revealed that about half of the documents examined were over-classified. A recent survey of classified information at the State Department found excessive secrecy in almost 50 percent of the documents reviewed. One official told my office of an ambassador who classified the menu for a dinner party so that his guests would be surprised by the food.
Excessive government secrecy has several damaging consequences.
First, it undermines U.S. national security. The massive volume of classified information forces us to spread our protective resources thinly. That increases the vulnerability of truly sensitive material. Because so much information is secret, almost 4 million people need security clearances for their work--more people than the population of Chicago. When too much information is classified, those who handle it become careless, and we become more vulnerable to espionage.
Second, overclassification decreases accountability, and that harms policy. In the normal policymaking process, the President proposes initiatives, Congress suggests revisions, the press comments, and the public debates. The President must defend his proposals. When information relevant to policy decisions remains unnecessarily secret, this scrutiny is not possible, and policy failures are more likely.
Third, the executive branch too often uses secrecy not to protect U.S. national security, but to increase the President's power relative to Congress. Information is power. The authority to classify information allows the executive branch to control the policy agenda, to structure debate, and to release or withhold critical facts. Members of Congress do not participate in decisions about who classifies, what gets classified, why it gets classified, or when it gets declassified.
Fourth, excessive classification impedes the free exchange of information. For example, American researchers without the necessary clearances have no access to the work of government scientists working in secret.
Fifth, excessive government secrecy is costly. Private contractors spend an estimated $14 billion per year to meet government requirements for the handling of classified material. Some information must be protected no matter the price. But the vast bureaucracy required to classify information is expensive.
Now that the Cold War is over, we have an opportunity--and an obligation--to review government secrecy to increase accountability and reduce the volume of classified material. This review should include a diversity of opinion and be as open as possible. Members of Congress must be involved. Neither the Constitution nor national security requires that the executive branch possess complete control over the classifying and handling of sensitive information. Several reforms should be considered.
First, simplify the current three-tiered classification process by eliminating the `confidential' level, as suggested by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1986. Second, institute a systematic, across-the-board declassification of older classified material unless an appropriate authority demonstrates that an identifiable risk to national security would result from disclosure. Third, return the presumption from one of secrecy to the pre- 1980s one of openness--when in doubt, do not classify.
Fourth, reduce the number of so-called `black' defense programs, which are more tightly controlled than other top secret information. These additional layers of secrecy constrain congressional oversight, making it difficult to ensure that public funds are properly spent. Fifth, apply the `need to know' principle more strictly. Only individuals who require access to classified information as part of their jobs should have this access. Finally, make the classification system more coherent and legally accountable by codifying it in law, particularly if the executive branch continues to neglect congressional concerns on issues relating to secrecy in government.
Public access to information is no mere convenience; it is a necessary condition of effective democracy. President Madison's words are still valid. `A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.'