The 9/11 Commission put it simply: The U.S. intelligence community is becoming increasingly complex and secretive – which can cost lives. Transforming the intelligence community's culture of secrecy into a culture of sharing should begin with transparency in the overall intelligence budget.
Current security policies nurture over-classification and excessive compartmentalization of information among agencies. By highlighting this problem in its final report, the Commission has created a new opportunity to reverse the ever-expanding controls on public access to government information and to rethink the impediments to information sharing within government, helping to make this nation safer.
For example, the U.S. intelligence services learned in the 1990s that al Qaeda had plans to hijack airplanes, and reported those plans in the President's Daily Brief (PDB). However, this information was not shared widely with other government agencies, let alone Congress or the American public= Sharing the contents of this PDB with a wider group might have brought about permanent changes in domestic airport and airline security procedures.
Unfortunately, since the events of September 11, 2001, classification activity and other forms of secrecy have increased dramatically. Last year, federal agencies generated over 14 million new secrets, according to the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), an increase of 25 percent from the preceding year.
Undoubtedly, many or most of these secrets have a valid national security justification — protecting military operations, advanced military technologies, intelligence sources, and so on. But just as certainly, many of them are invalid, arbitrary or willful abuses of classification authority.
The March 2004 Army report on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba was formally marked "Secret." The classification of this document appears to be a direct violation of classification policy, which states, "In no case shall information be classified in order to conceal violations of law…."
William Leonard, who oversees the national security classification system as director of the ISOO, is investigating the classification of the Taguba report. He.said, "After 30 years in government, I'm amazed at the number of cases of classified information that is improperly classified."
"More often than not, it's due to ignorance," he added. "But whether it's ignorance or not, the consequences are the same."
One of those consequences is that the financial costs of government secrecy are skyrocketing. Last year, classification-related costs, including physical security, personnel security and other costs of protecting classified information, increased by a billion dollars to $7.5 billion, according to another ISOO report.
But financial costs pale in comparison to the operational and political costs of unchecked secrecy, which, the 9/11 Commission found, left policymakers without public support for effective action against the threat of terrorism.
"We believe American and international public opinion might have been different – and so might the range of options for a president – had they [the American people] been informed of [the growing al Qaeda danger]," the commission concluded.
Why wasn't such information shared and publicized?
The commission traced the root of the problem to an inappropriate reliance on the so-called "need to know" principle, which limits access to classified information to those who have a demonstrated "need to know" the information to perform their official duties.
This approach assumes it is possible to know, in advance, who will need to use the information. Such a system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. According to the commission, those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate: "The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayer expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to [share] the information – to repay the taxpayers' investment by making that information available."
To begin this cultural transformation, the commission proposed a very specific action, which will also serve as a test of policymakers' intentions: "To combat the secrecy and complexity we have described, the overall amounts of money being appropriated for national intelligence and to its component agencies should no longer be kept secret."
This is an astute recommendation, since the amounts of intelligence agency budgets are not only intrinsically important for public policy, they are also an icon of unchecked secrecy that the CIA has gone to great lengths to withhold from the public (even implausibly claiming that historical budget figures from 50 years ago are still sensitive today).
If this "taboo" category of classified information can be successfully and consistently declassified, it will help prompt a rethinking of other inherited categories of secrecy. If it remains classified despite the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and the Cold War secrecy system remains intact, no other intelligence reform is likely to make much positive difference.
Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.