(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Old habits die hard. By the time you read to the bottom of this column, around 1,600 U.S. government documents and communications will have been classified in the name of national security.
If past habits serve as a guide, many if not most of the "confidential," "secret" and "top secret" markings will fall under the label "overclassification," a practice that stretches back to the 1940s and has been criticized in a long string of reports by high-powered congressional commissions and academic experts.
The latest comes from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school (http://tinyurl.com/4yt6blf). It says needless classification actually harms national security because it acts as a barrier to the exchange of information between government agencies and corrodes democracy. "Secret programs stifled public debate on the decisions that shaped our response to the September 11 attacks," the report notes.
Classification forced Americans to rely on leaked documents to debate such questions as the interrogation of detainees in secret overseas prisons or the government's eavesdropping, without warrants, on Americans' telephone calls. "The classification system must be reformed if we are to preserve the critical role that transparent government plays in a functioning democracy," says the report.
It was released against the background of another debate that relies on leaks rather than a government explanation - the killing by a drone strike in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al Qaeda. The same strike killed another American citizen, Samir Khan, the editor of an al Qaeda magazine. There has been no comprehensive official statement yet on the legal basis for these killings from the administration of President Barack Obama.
On his first day in office, Obama issued a memo -- much praised at the time -- that said: "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government ... Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government." He followed up the pledge nine months later with an executive order that created the National Declassification Center. Its task: deal with a backlog of more than 400 million classified documents.
And last October, the president signed into law the Reducing Over-Classification Act. Jane Harman, who at the time chaired the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Subcommittee and introduced the bill, defined overclassification as "the practice of stamping intelligence 'secret' for the wrong reasons, often to protect turf or avoid embarrassment." (The law itself does not define the term).
So what have these steps done to change what the Brennan Center's report calls a culture of secrecy in government agencies? So far, not much. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, the agency that oversees the security classification system, there were 224,734 "original decisions" to classify information in 2010, a 22.6 percent increase over the previous year. The number of "derivative classifications" totaled more than 76 million. (The two statistics translate into the number given in the opening paragraph of this column).
SECURITY CLEARANCES FOR 4.2 MILLION AMERICANS
The term "derivative classification" applies to people who have access to classified information and need to repeat it in communications with their colleagues or work of their own. How many people have access to classified information?
The government released the number for the first time in September and it is so huge, it boggles the mind -- 4.2 million, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, America's intelligence czar (http://tinyurl.com/3c4c5xj).
More than a million hold top secret clearances, including 525,000 contractors working for the government. Top secret information is defined as material whose disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to the national security."
The number of people with access to classified information vastly exceeded previous estimates and surprised intelligence experts. But is in line with the huge expansion of military and intelligence operations after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Today's U.S. intelligence budget is 2.5 times as large as it was in 2001.
In this vast universe, changing the culture of secrecy is difficult no matter what the directives on classification may be, said Steven Aftergood, who puts out a weekly newsletter, Secrecy News, for the Federation of American Scientists and has tracked classification policies for two decades. In his view, the Obama administration's transparency policy lacks coherence and its implementation lacks consistency.
The Brennan Center's Elizabeth Goitien, lead author of the new report, says the current system suffers from an "implementation gap" caused by a skewed incentive structure that all but guarantees overclassification. There is no downside in erring on the side of classifying information that deserves no classification but there can be grave consequences for revealing sensitive material.
One of the Center's recommendations for reforming the system - cash prizes for officials who draw attention to improper classification. The unorthodox idea could be put to the test in a pilot program designed to show the benefits of breaking the culture of secrecy. "We are hoping to convince one or two agencies to try something different," said Goitien. So far, no takers. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters) (Editing by Kieran Murray)