What determines whether or not a document whether a document should be classified?

What determines whether or not a document whether a document should be classified? by Tony Garcia

Answer by Tony Garcia:

The need for a saner system for classified information is long overdue. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on February 29, 2016, Abbe David Lowell described the country’s system of classifying information as “dysfunctional, arbitrary and counterproductive.”

Secrecy is essential to effecting policy goals. However, a culture of over-classification has shielded much from public debate.

The problem is more than just systemic myopia. A person can put a “classified” stamp on a document and ensure it is kept secret, or can leave it unclassified, subject to disclosure, and later be accused of having revealed something needing protection. There are no risks of penalty for using the stamp; the only punishment comes from not using it. Thus, the result is overclassification.

The randomness and inconsistency of document classification worsens the situation. One person’s decision on what to classify may not be consistent with that of another. Paragraphs marked “secret” in one document are left unclassified in another. And many times, information in a document marked “top secret” has become easily available on the Internet.

A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned that rampant over-classification is "imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public" and worse, "enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance." In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20 million filing cabinets filled with text.

There is no doubt that some secrecy is essential to the efficacy of intelligence and surveillance programs; specific sources and methods of such programs must be protected.

As an example, a document stating that Kim Jong-un of North Korea had a hamburger for lunch does not appear to be information that has to be protected. But the fact that we know he ate it reveals a source that needs protecting. This is where the classification system has to operate properly because real lives and methods are in peril.

The government can and should let Americans know what choices it is that they're making. The intelligence community might find Americans, particularly those most suspicious of government institutions, more sympathetic to their delicate balancing act when treated as informed participants.

What determines whether or not a document whether a document should be classified?

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