Sunday, September 05, 2004

Can You Have Too Much Secrecy?

An article in the Washington Post shows that the federal government is going overboard when it comes to classification of documents:

'Secrets' Perplex Panel
Classified Data Growing to Include 'Comically Irrelevant'

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page A17

A former dictator's cocktail preferences and a facetious plot against Santa Claus were classified by the government to prevent public disclosure. [...]

These, as well as other examples of classification were cited last week by members of Congress and witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing into the Sept. 11 commission's conclusion that secrecy is undermining efforts to thwart terrorists.

Some classifications were made in error or to save face.

The CIA deleted the amount Iraqi agents paid for aluminum tubes from Page 96 of a Senate report on prewar intelligence. The report quoted the CIA as concluding that "their willingness to pay such costs suggests the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest."

That price turned out to be not so high. On Page 105 of the same Senate report, the same security reviewers let the CIA's figure -- as much as $17.50 each -- be printed along with other estimates that the Iraqis paid as little as $10 apiece.

"There are too many secrets" and maybe too many secret-makers, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security panel. [...]

No one knows how much is classified, he said, and the system "often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant." [...]

"This administration believes the less known, the better," added the Connecticut Republican, noting sadly he was speaking of a GOP administration. "I believe the more known, the better." [...]

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on secrecy, said some classification was designed to conceal illegality or avoid embarrassment, even though that is forbidden. [...]

Representative Shays is a Republican. One wonders why he would be so critical of the practices of his own party. Unless, perhaps, it is because the overzealous classification of government documents is contrary to the fundamental principles of the Republican Party. Could it be that the practice of classifying so many documents is fiscally irresponsible? A recent New York Times article sheds some light:

Government by, for and Secret From the People
September 5, 2004

THE capital’s worst-kept secret is out: the federal government is becoming even more secretive.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the post-Sept. 11 age or tried to find out why his name was put on a “no fly” list, only to be told the information was too sensitive to be shared. But a new study seeks to quantify the government’s interest in keeping material classified. It found that the administration protected some 14 million documents last year – a 60 percent increase since 2001.

The study, conducted by a coalition called openthegovernment.org, which favors greater access to government information, also found that it cost the federal government $6.5 billion last year to secure its classified information, an increase of 39 percent since 2001.

Classifying and maintaining the nation’s secrets amounted to $459 a memo – or $120 spent on maintaining secrets for each dollar spent to declassify and release them.

I don't think anyone would try to argue that he government should not be making more of an effort to secure classified information. But they need to remember that doing so costs money. Doing it unnecessarily is a waste of money.