Mounting Case for Classification Reform Amid NSA Leaks, Congressional Pressure

By Elizabeth

In the wake of the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will review the government’s classification systems, the agency recently announced in a letter to two members of Congress.

At the behest of Representatives Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.), the government auditors will evaluate the perceived over classification and “classification inflation” of national security materials.  In a June 19 letter, Rep. Hunter wrote the GAO: “The recent disclosure of classified information regarding U.S. national security programs requires a thorough assessment of the current classification system.”  Rep. Roby, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, endorsed Rep. Hunter’s request with a separate letter to GAO, and in a July 30 reply, GAO wrote it would “begin the work shortly.”

The issue of balance between transparency and secrecy in national security issues has been at the heart of Congressional hearings and debates for many years, but legislation to make significant changes has repeatedly stalled. Now, two senators are adding pressure to reform and improve government’s classification system. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced legislation (S. 1464) that would implement many of the recommendations from the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) designed to promote transparency and efficiency by reducing unnecessary classification and addressing the growing backlog of records awaiting declassification. The Shaheen-Risch legislation directs government agencies to automatically declassify information identified as having short-term sensitivity and seeks to enhance the National Declassification Center, which is charged with streamlining and overseeing the declassification process. AALL has advocated for a strong National Declassification Center since it was created by President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order 13526 on Classified National Security Information.

AALL’s Government Relations Policy states that security classification should be construed to promote open government while acknowledging the need for FOIA exemptions. AALL will continue to work with members of Congress to reform the classification system to promote access while protecting certain sensitive information.

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