March 1, 2016

EXPLOIT THE WISDOM OF CROWDS:

The Broken System of Classifying Government Documents (ABBE DAVID LOWELL, FEB. 29, 2016, NY Times)

Too much information is classified, and those restrictions last too long. Right now, there are thousands of people in the government who can classify information. Think about the reality: A person can put a "classified" stamp on a document and ensure it is kept secret, or can leave it unclassified, subject to disclosure, and later be accused of having revealed something needing protection. No one risks any real penalty for using the stamp; the only punishment comes from not using it. The result is overclassification.

One person's decision may not be consistent with that of another. Many times, I've seen information in a document marked "top secret" that is easily available on the Internet. Similarly there are numerous examples where the exact same paragraph is marked "secret" in one document but left unclassified in another. Yet people have been prosecuted for disseminating such information, and at trial, the government blocks them from using the unclassified document as a defense.

Moreover, the courts will not accept the argument that information should not have been classified in the first place. Given how almost random the decision to classify is, this is astounding.

Classifications typically last 10 years. There is no real system for reviewing decisions, so information that was stale weeks after it was classified remains secret for years longer. The government may prosecute someone for discussing information that was classified long ago for a reason that is no longer valid. Here, too, the inappropriate length of classification is not a defense.

Often, the motive for classifying something is to protect not that information, but its source. For example, a document states that Kim Jong-un of North Korea had a hamburger for lunch. That is not information that has to be protected, but that we know that he ate it reveals a source that needs protecting. This is where the classification system has to operate properly because real lives and methods are in peril. Yet this kind of information, in my experience, is typically not what is being protected.

But that is the only government information that should be secret.  Open source everything else.

Posted by at March 1, 2016 3:07 PM

  

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