In the 1990s, the chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy – the late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan – said, “secrecy is a mode of regulation. In truth, it is the ultimate mode for the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated.”
The senator-scholar also wrote a book, Secrecy: The American Experience, that posited that government agencies classify information to avoid embarrassment, hide mistakes, and keep information to themselves (because information is power).
In late 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13526, meant to stem the tide of classification and to prevent agencies from classifying documents “for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment.” In 2020, the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability filed a Freedom of Information Act request before a host of government agencies seeking documents that would gauge how well they are complying with EO 13526.
PPSA just received a response from the Department of State, a “Self-Inspection Report” on classification and compliance from 2018. Some curious numbers arise out of this otherwise anodyne report that show the extent to which Moynihan’s critique remains correct, despite EO 13526.
The State Department reports:
These numbers may seem small in comparison to the mountains of documents that require State Department classification decisions. The actual number of improper classification decisions is surely much higher than what is reflected in this self-assessment, since the review only drew from a “representative sample” of all State Department records – and only for one year since EO 13526 was issued.
What can we deduce from this pinhole glimpse? We know that since President Obama’s executive order was issued, the number of U.S. classified government documents rose from almost 55 million to 77.5 million documents in five years.
Perhaps it is time for Congress to renew Moynihan’s Commission and ask why – despite the efforts of President Obama – our government is still classifying documents with abandon.