By James Sherrod
James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or comments.
What does the largest and only superpower of the modern world have to learn form an ancient children’s fable? It turns out quite a lot. For those who are not familiar, The Boy Who Cried Wolf is an ancient story of a shepherd boy who loved to play tricks on his village by pretending his sheep were being attacked by a wolf. Because he had tricked them so many times, no one believed him when his flock was actually attacked by wolves. In today’s world of 24 hour news cycles desperate for information Government officials have become reliant on the term “Classified Information” as a method of withholding information. Classifying documents has become a routine tactic to keep information away from the eyes of the public. But is the CLASSIFIED label something the citizens should respect?
Government Officials are quick to label individuals who leak or mishandle classified information as traitors. Surely, this information is very dangerous if our officials are charging men with treason? Well, maybe not. In 2014 upwards of 77 million documents were classified. That is over a 100% increase from the prior year! For reference, if you stacked 77 million pieces of paper on top of each other, the stack would stand 85 times taller than the Statue of Liberty. That sure seems like an awful lot of information to be classified, but is it? The US Government is very large and has legitimate reasons to classify certain information, but are they over classifying? The Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University thinks so.
In 2010 Director Thomas Blanton sent a 12 page statement to the U.S House of Representatives expressing concern for the massive “overclassification” of information. According to his own work and the work of various other experts it is estimated that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of classified documents have no reason to be classified. He goes on to explain how this practice is actually a detriment to national security. Even Former President Barrack Obama stated, “There’s classified, and then there’s classified.” suggesting that not all classified information is really of much importance. The overzealous use of the classification process has taken a method used to increase security into its own antithesis. What was once a staple of security has now become the security flaw in two ways.
First, the shear volume of information being classified has made it more difficult for the Government to analyze and keep track of legitimate national security information. This giant machine, moving millions of documents through seven levels of classification, makes it difficult to identify stolen or leaked material in a timely effective manner.
“when everything is classified, then nothing is classified.” -Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart 1958-1981
Secondly, every time a Government official hides behind, what turns out to be, unnecessarily classified information it erodes at the value of the term. The public has become so accustomed to the term CLASSIFIED they will no longer view it as important. This was obvious in the ability of a majority of voters to not give much weight to the violations of national security presented by Secretary Hilary Clinton’s email server.
The less value this label has, the more mishandling of this type of information we will see. As we work through the growing pains of a Government trying to expand beyond its effective limits we will hope for a transition to a a more transparent Government. A Government that uses its means of classifying information to a minimum while effectively securing dangerous information. Effectively, a Government that stops crying wolf.