Overclassification – a direct threat to national security

An interesting and forthright Government hearing published today by a Congressional Reform Subcommittee on “Overclassification and Pseudo-Classification” gives clear evidence why excessive secrecy is a danger to national security both in America and the rest of the world. See:

U.S. Representative Christopher Shays (Connecticut) bluntly describes the very real danger to the American public resulting from excessive government secrecy: “Those costs are measured in lives as well as dollars. Somewhere in the vast cache of data that never should have been classified, and may never be declassified is that tiny nugget of information that if shared, it could be used to detect and prevent the next deadly terrorist attack. Recently enacted reforms should help focus and coordinate disparate elements of the so-called intelligence community to broaden our view of critical threat information.”

These statements are mirrored by the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission that it was overclassification and excessive compartmentalization of information among agencies that left the door open for terrorists to strike.

Citizens and politicians in America are fighting the trend of excessive secrecy with a public interest declassification board that has new authority to push for executive branch adherence to disclosure standards, particularly with regard to congressional committee requests.

You might well ask if our own UK government has an equivalent level of scrutiny. The answer is NO, even though British MPs and the general public have far less access to information about our intelligence services and police than our American counterparts. This country still labours under the archaic belief that we need to be secret to be safe. In this sense, President Bush is the most ‘British’ president since Richard Nixon.

In fact, as September 11th proved, we lose protection by too much secrecy. The true facts behind the London July 7 and 21 attacks may well show a similar failure to stop the attacks thanks to excessive secrecy and compartmentalisation of information. Already it has emerged that one of the bombers was known to US intelligence. What other information was known, not shared and therefore never utilised?

What is also forgotten in this rush to secrecy is that such behaviour is antithetical to a democratic society. As U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich said, “This climate of secrecy takes us toward a type of government which is not democratic, which is profoundly undemocratic, which has that kind of a stale, garbage-like whiff of fascism to it.”

Too true – but what are Brits going to do about it? The time for pontification and moaning has passed. Power hungry police and politicians have our civil liberties in their gunsights and the time is now to take action before it is too late. Write a letter to your MP or local/national newspaper – and demand more accountability from the police and intelligence services. They want more power and information about the public – make them pay for it with greater transparency! This is surely the best way to keep the country safe.

2 Responses to “Overclassification – a direct threat to national security”

  1. Dave says:

    This is not a new problem. Ever since I have been involved with MoD issues we have continually had problems with over classification.

    There have been many examples where I have read documents and wondered why it was classified as I had read more in a magazine article that would impact on the classification requirements. I’ve even seen documents that are copies of Web Pages available on the WWW available to the general public.

    Each classification comes with a clear definition of what each classification covers but the UK security community continually marks documents classified even when they clearly don’t meet the requirements. We even classify US documents that are available in the US unclassified.

    It’s all for our protection though so it must be OK. Better safe than sorry. After all no one can give any details or they can be prosecuted under the OSA and everything else can be denied. So our backsides are protected.

  2. Iain says:

    As an ex RAF officer, I have some experience of classification issues.

    There is in fact some reluctance to over-classify. Protectively marked material at certain grades attracts certain
    protection and monitoring requirements – including restrictions on electronic transfer.

    The less highly-classified material the better, from the point of view of security staff!

    In fact I’ve been surprised at the relatively lowly classification of some of the material released for Hutton and from FoI
    requests. Of course, once something is classified (even classified as unclassified!) it can’t be released without
    authority. The authority is usually the document originator, who may have specified a distribution list.

    As all perusing this blog will know, there are FoI exemptions which can be applied regardless of the level of classification
    which seems the normal method of avoiding disclosure.

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