The Wiki Dump: Why More Secrecy Means Less Security

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

A White House staffer holds a folder with top secret documents for President Obama.

Most of the information in the more than 250,000 diplomatic cables dumped by the website WikiLeaks Sunday will prove to be quotidian and inconsequential. The fact that an American diplomat believes Russian president Dmitry Medvedev plays "Robin to [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's Batman" is not going to shake the foundations of American diplomacy. Anyone who has followed the troubled effort by the Obama administration to close Guantanamo Bay will not be surprised to learn that hard-working emissaries have been begging countries to take some of the detainees at Camp X-Ray off America's hands. It is not shocking that the U.S. mission to the U.N. was asked in July 2009 to report on "views of United Nations (UN) member states on contributing troops and air transportation equipment, such as helicopters, to the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and the African Union."

But just because most of the documents don't directly threaten U.S. national interests doesn't mean all of them are benign. The revelation of Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh's acquiescence to American bombing in his country or of U.S. efforts to secure Pakistani nuclear material could endanger Americans at home and abroad. More important, those who are reassured by the gray communication of America's diplomats are missing the larger point: there is a direct relationship between the existence of classified banality and the dangerous disclosure of secrets that can harm America's national security.

America's government is consumed by classification. Hundreds of thousands of government documents are marked confidential, secret, top secret or SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) every year, including everything from decades-old historical documents to ones other agencies have already declassified. As the elder statesman of bipartisan secrecy skepticism, Senator Daniel Moynihan of New York, wrote in 1997, the more government declares everything secret, the less secure the actual secrets are. "The system grew so vast... that it began to appear unavailing," Moynihan wrote in his congressionally mandated bipartisan report, "Almost everything was declared secret; not everything remained secret, and there were no sanctions for disclosure." Larry Combest, the Republican from Texas who served as the Moynihan commission's vice chairman, said they were "confronted on many levels with the lack of credibility and loss of respect for the Government system of secrecy, born in part through overclassification, too much complexity, and the well-known phenomenon of self-perpetuating bureaucracy."

The problem became acute in the 1990s with a massive expansion of those who can create classified documents. In 1995, Bill Clinton issued executive order 12958, which gave some 20 officials, including the President, the power to classify documents as top secret, meaning their disclosure would likely "cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security" of the U.S. But the order also delegated that authority to 1,336 others, and granted derivative classification authority to some two million government officials and a million industry contractors, according to the Moynihan report.

The more government officials are empowered to classify documents, the more people doing government work need clearances to look at it. In 2008 alone DoD issued some 630,000 security clearances. In its deep investigation of American secrecy earlier this year, the Washington Post found some 854,000 had top secret clearance. The issuance of clearances has been flawed and unrigorous, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In 2009, the GAO found that "87% of about 3,500 investigative reports that adjudicators used to make clearance decisions were missing at least one type of documentation required by the federal investigative standards," including information on previous employment, social references and complete security forms. 12% of the reports didn't include a subject interview.

Which brings us to the source of the leak of the diplomatic cables. The U.S. government has arrested Bradley Manning, a private in the U.S. Army who had access to the SIPRNET system on which classified documents up to the designation "secret" are shared by U.S. government agencies around the world. Manning reportedly told a fellow hacker that he downloaded to CD discs compressed files of the cables and gave them to WikiLeaks. 11,000 of the documents are marked "secret", none are marked "top secret".

No one has yet found fault in Manning's security clearance issuance. And even without over-classification he might have obtained the documents and given them to WikiLeaks. But years of expanded classification and sprawling clearance issuance has vastly increased the pool of potential leakers to WikiLeaks, and has diminished the seriousness with which people treat the leaking of classified information. "Classification policy is close to the root of this scandal," says Steven Aftergood, author of the Secrecy News blog at the Federation of American Scientists. "A determined effort to combat overclassification would reduce the volume of material that requires protection, thereby improving the security of genuine secrets and it would increase public and official confidence in the integrity of the classification system, thereby reducing the motivation for, and tolerance of, unauthorized disclosures."

The Obama administration has said that it intends to address the problem, but DoD is resisting reform.