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Top US spy warns too many government secrets harms national security

<i>Joe Raedle/Getty Images</i><br/>Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be President-elect Joe Biden’s national intelligence director on January 19
Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be President-elect Joe Biden’s national intelligence director on January 19

By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

Over-classification of government secrets both undermines national security by blocking the intelligence community’s ability to share critical information and “erodes the basic trust that our citizens have in their government,” the US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said in a letter to Congress obtained by CNN.

The statement from the nation’s top spy chief is among the most forceful acknowledgments from a sitting intelligence official of a problem that transparency advocates have warned keeps important information about US government activities hidden from the public — a debate that in recent years has played out in high-profile court fights over memoirs by former Trump administration officials, most notably former national security adviser John Bolton.

“It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner” with allies, Congress and the public, Haines said. Not only does this damage public trust, she wrote, it “reduces the Intelligence Community’s capacity to effectively support senior policymaker decision-making.”

The issue is growing, Haines wrote, as the volume of classified material “continues to grow exponentially in a digital-first environment.”

The letter, in response to an October request for information on the issue from Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, and Jerry Moran, a Republican of Kansas, called current government efforts to address the issue “simply not sufficient.”

Among the attempts that are underway to cut into the backlog are efforts at the State Department and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency aimed at modernizing and digitizing records to make them easier to search, with the aim of expediting reviews for declassification.

Haines’ letter also provided the lawmakers with other non-public — although not classified — examples of efforts within the intelligence community to try to address the problem. A spokesman for Wyden’s office declined to provide further details.

“It is a fundamentally important issue that we must address,” Haines said.

The letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

‘Deluge’ of data

The burgeoning amount of data in an increasingly interconnected world has been widely recognized as a challenge to the government’s current classification systems. Although it’s not known exactly how much information is classified by the US government, Wyden and Moran have previously said that classification costs the federal government close to $18.5 billion a year, “while the backlog continues to grow.”

The federal entity responsible for US classification, the Information Security Oversight Office, warned in a 2019 report that the government creates “electronic petabytes of classified and controlled unclassified data each month, a deluge that we expect will continue to grow unabated.”

The current IT systems used to securely manage this glut of classified information are “unsustainable,” the ISOO wrote. Among other things, the office found, the government “has not spent money on new applications to support precise, consistent, and accurate classification decisions,” nor has it developed “technologies and processes” to handle eventual declassification and publication of information.

Transparency advocates, meanwhile, argue that the government has inappropriately used classification as a way to hide embarrassing or damaging information about government activities that rightly belongs in the public eye. Journalists and advocacy groups are often reliant on a notoriously slow freedom of information process, illegal leaks or other outside investigative efforts to uncover information on high-profile issues like overseas drone strikes and surveillance policies.

Still others — including Haines in a chapter of a book published last year — argue that classifying information unnecessarily encourages damaging national security leaks.

The Biden administration has made some high-profile decisions to publicly release classified information, including an intelligence report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi prepared during the Trump administration but never released. The administration has also released unclassified reports on its findings related to a spate of unidentified aerial objects seen by Navy pilots and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wyden and Moran, who for years have pushed for an overhaul of the country’s declassification system, praised Haines’ response in a statement.

“Director Haines clearly recognizes that the current broken classification system harms U.S. national security while eroding the public’s trust in government,” the senators said. “We are encouraged by programs to automate the declassification review process.”

Haines in her letter committed to working with Wyden and Moran, who have also called on her to coordinate with the National Security Council on reforms to the executive orders that control classification and declassification.

Still, transparency advocates raised questions on Thursday about the Biden administration’s commitment to solving what is unquestionably a thorny and sprawling bureaucratic problem.

“This is an important recognition by [Haines] that over-classification undermines trust in government,” Alex Abdo, the litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a tweet. “The real question is whether the Biden administration has the will to fix the problem.”

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