Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The High Cost of Secrecy in Washington - Who is Protecting Whom?

Back in September 2014, then President Obama made the following promise about open government:

Screcy in government is largely what allows it to do pretty much whatever it wants behind closed doors and it is this secrecy that often leads to abuse of power.

While most of us are aware of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which was enacted in 1967 which allows citizens the "...right to access information from the federal government...", most of us are unaware of how much it costs Washington to keep its behind-the-scenes activities from seeing the light of day.  A recent study by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) released on the National Archives website provides us with data showing how much U.S. taxpayers spent in fiscal 2016 to keep federal government secrets from hitting the cold, hard light of day.

The ISOO Report to the President is required by Executive Order 13526, "Classified National Security Information" and contains an analysis of the federal government's security classification system, the National Industrial Security Program and the Controlled Unclassified Information Program based on data collected from executive branch agencies and departments.  In this report, ISOO includes the cost of security classification activity.

Let's start by looking at the two main program activities:

1a.) Classification:  Original classification authorities are those individuals who are designated (in writing) by the President, agency heads or senior agency officials and are authorized to determine what information could be reasonably expected to cause damage to national security if specific information is disclosed.  Here is a graphic showing how the number of original classification authors has declined over the past decade:

Here is a graphic showing how many classification decisions were made for each year over the past decade:

In fiscal 2016, 1,850 Top Secret, 27,133 Secret and 10,277 Confidential decisions were made with each decision involving the date or event when the information will become declassified.  Of the classification decisions in 2016, 30 percent were determined to be declassifiable in 10 years or less compared to 15 percent in 2015 but down from 74 percent in 2010.

1b.) Derivative Classifications:  We also have to keep in mind that there is other classification activity occurring.  Derivative classification is "the act of incorporating, paraphrasing, restating or generating in new form information that is already classified.  There were a total of 55.21 million derivative classifications in fiscal 2016 with 9.95 million being classified Top Secret, 50.48 million being classified Secret and 4.87 million being classified Confidential.  While the 55 million derivative classifications is down from the 2012 peak of 95.18 million, it is up substantially from fiscal 2007 and 2008 when roughly 23 million derivative classifications were made.

Classification decisions made by original classification authorities are not always well received; when holders of information who believe that the classification of their information was not assigned the correct status, they can challenge the classification.  In fiscal 2016, there were 954 formal classification challenges with 633 coming from the Department of Defense, 281 coming from the Department of the Navy and 47 coming from the Department of the Army.

2.) Declassification: Declassification is defined as the authorized change in status of information from classified to unclassified.  There are four types of declassification; automatic (which occurs when the information reached the 25-year threshold), systematic review, discretionary review and mandatory review.  During fiscal 2016, a total of 102.17 million pages were revised under the automatic, systematic and discretionary declassification programs and 43.94 million pages were declassified.  Here is a graphic showing the breakdown by type of review for fiscal 2016:

Here is a graphic showing the number of pages reviewed and declassified for the past ten years (excluding mandatory declassification):

With that background, let's get to the bottom line.  How much does classification of government activities cost U.S. taxpayers?  The total security classification cost estimate within the federal government for fiscal 2016 was $16.89 billion.  This includes the cost estimates of the Intelligence Community which totalled $2.38 billion.  Here is a breakdown of the costs of classification for fiscal 2016:

Here is a graphic showing how the cost of government security classification has risen over the past decade noting that Intelligence Community costs were first included in fiscal 2013:

As you can see, in the grand scheme of Washington's multi-trillion annual budgets, the cost of secrecy is relatively small, however, it is still greater than the entire annual budget of some of America's smaller states as you can see here:

As well, there is an even greater non-cost-related problem.  According to a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform dated December 7, 2016 which examined the costs of over classification on transparency and security, Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists made the following observations about issues with the federal government's current classification policies:

1.) Classification restricts desired information sharing.

2.) Classification impedes Congressional oversight.

3.) Classification undermines government accountability.

4.) Classification limits public awareness  of national security threats.

5.) Classification clouds the historical record of U.S. government operations.

6.) Classification is inefficient and increases financial costs.

7.) classification is susceptible to massive single-point failures through unauthorized disclosures. 

In his opening comments, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz made the following comment:

"Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, and without knowing what our government is doing, we can’t ensure it is operating efficiently and effectively. It is also important to remember that the American people pay for the Federal Government. The Federal Government works for the American people. It is not the other way around, and so it is, you would think, logical to make sure that we are as open and transparent and accessible as possible, but this is always a running battle. We always have to find the proper balance between safety and security and openness and transparency, but we can’t give up all of our liberties in the name of security. And so we have this hearing today with four experts, people who have poured their time, effort, talent, their careers really, into this topic. There is a wealth of information that they are going to share with us, and that is what we are excited to hear about today.

Without knowing what our government is doing, we can’t ensure it is operating efficiently and effectively, as I said. Transparency is the basis ultimately for accountability." (my bold)

Government secrecy has its place, unfortunately, those in power often use it so that they can abuse the power that the voting public has granted them.  The spending of nearly $14 billion in fiscal 2016 just to keep the public ignorant of federal government machinations is just another example of what lengths those in power are willing to take to retain their elected office.  

As I stated in the title of this posting "Who is Protecting Whom?".

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