Senators push major reforms to government’s security classification process

A pair of bills sponsored by four senior Senate Intelligence Committee members seek to add more governance, training and accountability to the government's secu...

A bipartisan group of members of the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing a significant overhaul of the government’s procedures for classifying information, seeking both to curtail what they say is a massive overclassification problem and to make existing records simpler to declassify.

Among numerous other provisions, the legislation, introduced Wednesday, includes a new 25-year time limit on classifying government records as secret or top secret, financial incentives designed to discourage agencies from classifying too many records in any given year. And new training for agency staff to promote more “sensible” classification.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced the reforms as two separate bills: the Classification Reform Act and the Sensible Classification Act, saying that together, the bills would clamp down on overclassification, create more centralized governance over federal agencies’ classification procedures, and also shore up agencies’ insider threat programs.

“We’ve got a byzantine, bizarre bureaucratic system that has not kept up with the times, has not moved to digitalization, and consequently, we continue to vastly overclassify huge amounts of information while at the same time not fully protecting our nation’s most important secrets,” Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We are so overclassified that our military has said it leads to a hindrance in working smoothly with our allies around the world. And because we’ve got so many records that are classified, that’s also led to a simultaneous need for more people to get clearances. We’re now over 4 million people in America with security clearances. That combination of overclassification and too many people having clearances has led us to this problem.”

The first bill — the Classification Reform Act —  is meant, in part, to raise the bar on what information can be classified in the first place.

Agencies would need to explicitly determine that the risk to national security outweighs the public’s right to know about government activities before they make a classification decision. It would also make the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) the government’s executive agent for both classification and declassification. Backers argue that right now, there’s no single authority in charge of the overall system, leaving agencies to set their own rules and often classify mundane documents by default.

And to reduce the chances of that happening, the bill also creates what its sponsors call a “tax” on agencies who classify too much. Each agency would contribute part of its budget into a working capital fund to pay for programs to declassify existing documents, but the agencies who classify the most new records each year would also pay the most toward the declassification effort.

Wyden said one goal of the new fund is to modernize the technologies agencies use for declassification reviews.

“Even after these records no longer meet the [current] requirements for classification, they just keep piling up and never see the light of day. Sometimes the agencies can’t find the records. Sometimes they are hampered by the fact that the systems don’t talk to each other,” he said. “The result is that in 2023 documents actually have to be printed out and walked around town to get everybody sign off before they’re declassified. We’re not even in the right century with respect to technology on these kind of crucial issues. The four of us believe this is a fixable problem. We’ve got to invest in technological modernization, and somebody in this whole labyrinth of agencies has to make sure these changes get made across the federal government.”

There’s a technology modernization aspect to the second bill too.

The Sensible Classification Act would order agencies to converge on a single “federated and integrated” IT solution to handle classification and declassification decisions.

Agencies would also have to furnish studies on how many of their positions require security clearances, and justify those numbers.

Cornyn said the idea is to reduce the amount of information the government produces with classified markings, and reserve Secret and Top Secret labels for information that truly needs to be protected. Theoretically, if that were the case, fewer people would actually need clearances for their day-to-day jobs that could also give them access to genuine secrets they have no need to know.

“Our democracy  —  our ability to govern ourselves  —  depends on the public getting access to information about what our government and government officials are doing,” Cornyn said. “And unfortunately, the all-too-human instinct is to classify information which could potentially be embarrassing or jeopardizing to one’s advancement in their career. If 4 million people potentially have a right to get access to something, to me, it seems like it’s hardly a secret. We need to make sure that only those truly necessary bits of information are kept in a classified setting.”

The legislation would also add funding and staff to the existing Public Interest Declassification Board. That board, in turn, would be an official advisor to the Director of National Intelligence as he or she takes on the role of setting governmentwide classification and declassification policies.

“We have such a mass of classified information and we aren’t putting enough resources against managing documents, against determining what’s classified and not classified,” said Ezra Cohen, a former chairman and current member of the board. “Underfunding leads to lax control.”

The reforms the new bills seek have been under discussion by members of the intelligence committee for years, but Moran said the senators think the legislation they’ve come up with stands a genuine chance of passage.

That’s partly because of the recent events involving Airman 1st Class Jack Teixeira, who’s accused of accessing and leaking possibly hundreds of sensitive classified documents.

“In today’s environment, it is too great of a risk to have a circumstance in which so much information is classified that we fail to do the job of protecting the information that should be classified. We’ve seen it too many times, and we’ve seen it within the last month,” Moran said. “In this current circumstance, I don’t think the four of us are here with a messaging bill just to show our constituents that we’re doing something. This is a piece of legislation that can become law, and it’s desperately needed.”

Wyden said the legislation may also face less opposition from the executive branch than it might have during past administrations, despite the natural tendency for presidents to resist attempts to rein in their control over the classification system.

He noted that Avril Haines, the current DNI, wrote in a January 2022 letter that “deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives.”

“My view is the protection of sources and methods and declassification reform go hand in hand,” Wyden said. “That’s because it’s a lot easier to protect important secrets when you’re not acting like everything is a secret.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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