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It’s past time to reduce over-classification

Photo illustration of classified document and letter text with Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Mike Pence in a center rectangle with a black-and-white White House behind them.
Madeline Monroe/Associated Press-John Elswick/Associated Press-Rebecca Blackwell/Greg Nash/Associated Press-John Minchillo

Recent headlines on the mishandling of classified documents shine a light on another problem — something I have long advocated for and acted on — and that is the need to reduce over-classification.

In 2010, months before I left Congress to head the Wilson Center, President Obama signed into law a bipartisan bill, the Reducing Over-Classification Act (H.R. 533). As its principal author, I was motivated by the fact that our government was hobbled in sharing real-time, sensitive information with first responders who needed it to intercept plots to harm us.  

The 9/11 Commission found that the single most important reason for the major and tragic failure to detect and prevent the attacks that day was the inability to share information. A  key reason for this inability was over-classification.  

This concern is not new. Erwin Griswold, former U.S. Solicitor General who argued for the government in the Pentagon Papers case, penned an op-ed some years later in favor of declassification. In his words, there are some “secrets not worth keeping.” Most classified documents do not, in fact, contain anything that threatens national security.  

That is why the Reducing Over-Classification Act was so necessary when I introduced it. The bill outlined procedures to promote timely information-sharing between governmental entities and introduced training programs for federal employees involved in the classification process. It also instructed the director of national intelligence to create guidance for standardizing intelligence products and all federal inspector generals to assess how effective their classification policies really were.

Twelve years later, little has happened to implement my law or enact other practices and statutes to curb excessive classification. In 2014, the director of national intelligence released a report which found that in the areas of training, oversight and program management, improvement was needed to meet the requirements of the law. A 2019 report found, more damningly, that no Office of Inspector General (OIG) “identified an occurrence when its agency provided incentives to employees for accurate classification. Moreover, no OIG reported on the imposition of agency sanctions for inappropriate classification decisions or noncompliance.”

I strongly support and understand in granular detail the need to protect the sources and methods behind our collection of information by human and technical means. I have seen what we do and what it means to our security.

But we overdo it. If one portion of a document is classified, that portion should be marked (according to my law) so the rest can be released. Embarrassment or protecting turf are never good reasons to classify.

This does not excuse anyone who has intentionally or accidentally taken classified material. But preventing further over-classification is a way forward that could create bright red lines and make best practices clearer.

Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) served in Congress for nine terms and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee after 9/11. She is the chair of the Commission on the National Defense Strategy, chair of the Board of the Freedom House, president emerita of The Wilson Center and author of “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Solve Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe.”

Tags classified documents Classified information Jane Harman National security Obama Reducing Over-Classification Act top secret White House

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