Vast Troves of Classified Info Undermine National Security, Spy Chief Says
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, says current classification system strains intelligence agencies and erodes public trust. Vast Troves of Classified Info Undermine National Security, Spy Chief Says
The U.S. intelligence community’s approach to classifying vast amounts of information is so flawed that it harms national security and diminishes public trust in government, according to Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of national intelligence.
The acknowledgment of such concerns about how the nation’s spy agencies choose what information to keep secret under various classification levels is among the most significant by a president’s sitting intelligence chief, government transparency advocates said, and could indicate broader interest in the Biden administration for loosening restrictive access to some of the government’s growing collection of secrets.
“It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner” with allies, policy makers and the public, Ms. Haines wrote in a letter earlier this month to Sens. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
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The letter was in response to an October request for information from the senators, who have pushed for overhauls of the declassification system to assist federal agencies struggling to process a large volume of secret information that is no longer sensitive, such as backlogged historical records Congress has said must be released. Messrs. Wyden and Moran have said classification costs taxpayers about $18.5 billion annually.
It is not publicly known how much information is classified by the government, but watchdogs and open-government activists believe such a trove is likely to include billions of records and is rapidly expanding, in part because of the explosion of digital communications.
Such secrecy, Ms. Haines wrote, “reduces the intelligence community’s (IC) capacity to effectively support senior policy maker decision-making, and further erodes the basic trust that our citizens have in their government. It is a fundamentally important issue that we must address.”
Despite numerous reviews looking at problems with classification, Ms. Haines said current efforts to address the exponential growth of classified material “are simply not sufficient.”
Government transparency advocates have argued for decades that the classification regime among intelligence agencies is overly restrictive and prevents the public from knowing what the U.S. government is doing on a range of security issues, such as drone strikes in foreign countries, surveillance practices at home and abroad, and offensive cyber operations.
Often unflattering information—such as civilian deaths from drone strikes—only comes to light after Freedom of Information lawsuits from media organizations, or if an official risks years of jail time by leaking classified material.
U.S. national security officials, while acknowledging some shortcomings, have historically defended expansive classification practices as necessary to their core intelligence collection missions.
“Some of the most consequential decisions our government makes are related to national security,” said Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which advocates for more government transparency.
‘Some of the most consequential decisions our government makes are related to national security.’
— Alex Abdo, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Ms. Haines, 52 years old, is the first woman director of national intelligence, a job that oversees 18 intelligence agencies and units, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, which employ hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors.
She has previously expressed concerns about the classification system in intelligence agencies, but never before as starkly or substantively. In a book chapter published last year, but written before she became the nation’s intelligence chief, Ms. Haines identified overclassification as a problem in part because “it actually encourages leaking.”
In her letter, Ms. Haines included two declassified efforts under way at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Department of State to address the intelligence community’s classification issues, both of which involve efforts to modernize and digitize records to make them easier to search and identify in order to more quickly release material to the public.
“Director Haines clearly recognizes that the current broken classification system harms U.S. national security while eroding the public’s trust in government,” Messrs. Wyden and Moran said in a joint statement.
The senators said Ms. Haines had offered to work with them on overhauls, and that they had asked her to coordinate with the White House on potential updates to the presidential executive orders governing the classification system.
An aide to Mr. Wyden said additional examples of efforts to improve declassification work included in Ms. Haines’s letter were shared with Messrs. Wyden and Moran but marked “for official use only,” a government designation assigned to documents that, while not technically a classification level, limits the public’s access to them.
A senior intelligence official said those examples were downgraded to that level to enable wider circulation in Congress, but because they include information about pending budgetary decisions, they couldn’t be made public.
Ongoing declassification review efforts are focused on identifying topics that hold significant public interest, the intelligence official said.
About four million people have some level of security clearance in the U.S., including about one million contractors, according to recent federal estimates. The number has fluctuated but drawn bipartisan scrutiny in Congress for years amid worries of insider threats—employees who steal classified national security information and disclose it to a foreign power or to the public.
Mr. Abdo said the Biden administration had taken encouraging steps over the past year to be more transparent, including the declassification of an intelligence report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—which had been written during the Trump administration but never released—and the decision by Mr. Biden not to assert executive privilege over documents from the Trump White House related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But Mr. Abdo said he was still skeptical about the Biden administration’s overall commitment to overhauling the classification regime.
“People lose their jobs or get prosecuted if they release information that they shouldn’t, but they face no consequences for failing to disclose something the public needs to know,” Mr. Abdo said. “Unsurprisingly, that has bred a culture of secrecy in government.”
Battles over classification have recently centered on former officials attempting to publish books about their time in government that are subjected to a process known as pre-publication review. Typically, government employees and contractors with access to classified information must submit any published works—even works of fiction—to their agency for reviews.
Some former Trump administration officials have sought to publish books about their encounters with the former president, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who sued the Pentagon in November for redacting portions of his manuscript.
Lawyers in a separate case—including Mr. Abdo of the Knight First Amendment Institute—that involves several former intelligence officials who have sought to publish writings on their government service have appealed to the Supreme Court after losing in lower courts.
Their lawsuit argues that the pre-publication review is overly restrictive and violates freedom-of-speech protections. The government has countered that the reviews don’t violate the First Amendment and are necessary to protect national security.
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A Watergate-era honor system for safeguarding top-secret information in the White House clearly isn’t working.
Revelations that Donald Trump, Joe Biden and now Mike Pence have mishandled classified documents expose the pitfalls of trusting presidents and vice presidents to hand over the nation’s secrets appropriately when they leave office.
They also raise the question of how many more documents will be discovered in the homes of the nation’s top leaders. Trump took boxes with him to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Smaller sets of material marked classified have been uncovered in Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home and at the Penn Biden Center in Washington.
At the very least, the incidents underscore the need for an independent authority to review records, especially during presidential transitions.
“It’s a messed-up system,” said national security lawyer Kel McClanahan. “There should be somebody who is not the president, vice president or their staff who has the job of going through everything before they put it in a box and take it to the Penn Center or Mar-a-Lago.”
Additional documents might turn up in the coming weeks, experts said, especially considering more records are categorized as classified than ever before.
“If I am a public official who has had access to classified documents in the past, I would be calling my lawyers right now and telling them to start searching all of my stored materials immediately,” said Bradley Moss, a longtime national security expert who is following the Trump and Biden cases.
Outdated laws, the increased use of telework during the coronavirus pandemic and a “tsunami of digitally created” records are straining the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives, which urged modernizing the handling of classified information in a July report to the White House.
The problem isn’t just a bureaucratic headache, but a political one. The FBI in August searched Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, retrieving hundreds of documents that had been marked as classified and sparking partisan bickering.
The political tensions intensified in recent weeks when it became public that Biden’s attorneys had uncovered classified documents dating to his vice presidency. On Tuesday, a Pence spokesman confirmed a CNN report that the former vice president’s lawyers had found a small number of documents at his house in Indiana.
“What the hell is going on around here is my reaction,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee told NBC news about the discovery of misplaced classified documents. “Look, obviously there is a systemic problem in the executive branch. Talking about two successive administrations from two different parties with officials at the top level having in their possession documents in places where they don’t belong.”
Classified documents turn up in the wrong place often, something investigators call “spillage.” Federal employees with security clearances and attorneys must immediately report any documents they find stored inappropriately, and it’s only considered a crime if they are found to have intentionally taken the documents or tried to cover up the mishandling.
McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, said most cases don’t lead to criminal charges, so they never end up in the news. He recalled one client who discovered months after leaving her job that a CD with classified information on it had gotten stuck to the bottom of a folder when she was boxing up her desk.
“Spillages happen so much more than anyone ever knows,” he said.
The Pence revelation suggests that the retention of secret documents outside safe locations is “perhaps even normal,” former federal prosecutor Kevin O’Brien said.
“It also appears that Pence, like Biden, may have inadvertently engaged in this conduct,” O’Brien said. “The contrast with Trump, who intentionally removed documents for private reasons and then misled and obstructed the government after it attempted to retrieve them, is clear.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, was critical of Biden in an interview on Bloomberg Radio’s “Sound On,” and said reforms were necessary.
“You’re now looking at President Biden, as not only vice president but as a member of the Senate who ended up with classified documents,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine how someone ends up with these in their home, or not properly caring for these documents.”
“And cleaning up that process, making certain that we tighten those protocols in how the documents are viewed, when and where they’re viewed. How you sign them in, sign them out. That is an appropriate step to take,” she added. Blackburn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she “would love” to see the panel take action this year.
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Grayscale Bitcoin Trust Outperformed Indexes In First Half Of 2019 (#GotBitcoin?)
XRP Is The Worst Performing Major Crypto Of 2019 (GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Back Near $12K As BTC Shorters Lose $44 Million In One Morning (#GotBitcoin?)
As Deutsche Bank Axes 18K Jobs, Bitcoin Offers A ‘Plan ฿”: VanEck Exec (#GotBitcoin?)
Argentina Drives Global LocalBitcoins Volume To Highest Since November (#GotBitcoin?)
‘I Would Buy’ Bitcoin If Growth Continues — Investment Legend Mobius (#GotBitcoin?)
Lawmakers Push For New Bitcoin Rules (#GotBitcoin?)
Facebook’s Libra Is Bad For African Americans (#GotBitcoin?)
Crypto Firm Charity Announces Alliance To Support Feminine Health (#GotBitcoin?)
Canadian Startup Wants To Upgrade Millions Of ATMs To Sell Bitcoin (#GotBitcoin?)
Trump Says US ‘Should Match’ China’s Money Printing Game (#GotBitcoin?)
Casa Launches Lightning Node Mobile App For Bitcoin Newbies (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Rally Fuels Market In Crypto Derivatives (#GotBitcoin?)
World’s First Zero-Fiat ‘Bitcoin Bond’ Now Available On Bloomberg Terminal (#GotBitcoin?)
Buying Bitcoin Has Been Profitable 98.2% Of The Days Since Creation (#GotBitcoin?)
Another Crypto Exchange Receives License For Crypto Futures
From ‘Ponzi’ To ‘We’re Working On It’ — BIS Chief Reverses Stance On Crypto (#GotBitcoin?)
These Are The Cities Googling ‘Bitcoin’ As Interest Hits 17-Month High (#GotBitcoin?)
Venezuelan Explains How Bitcoin Saves His Family (#GotBitcoin?)
Quantum Computing Vs. Blockchain: Impact On Cryptography
This Fund Is Riding Bitcoin To Top (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin’s Surge Leaves Smaller Digital Currencies In The Dust (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Exchange Hits $1 Trillion In Trading Volume (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Breaks $200 Billion Market Cap For The First Time In 17 Months (#GotBitcoin?)
You Can Now Make State Tax Payments In Bitcoin (#GotBitcoin?)
Religious Organizations Make Ideal Places To Mine Bitcoin (#GotBitcoin?)
Goldman Sacs And JP Morgan Chase Finally Concede To Crypto-Currencies (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Heading For Fifth Month Of Gains Despite Price Correction (#GotBitcoin?)
Breez Reveals Lightning-Powered Bitcoin Payments App For IPhone (#GotBitcoin?)
Big Four Auditing Firm PwC Releases Cryptocurrency Auditing Software (#GotBitcoin?)
Amazon-Owned Twitch Quietly Brings Back Bitcoin Payments (#GotBitcoin?)
JPMorgan Will Pilot ‘JPM Coin’ Stablecoin By End Of 2019: Report (#GotBitcoin?)
Is There A Big Short In Bitcoin? (#GotBitcoin?)
Coinbase Hit With Outage As Bitcoin Price Drops $1.8K In 15 Minutes
Samourai Wallet Releases Privacy-Enhancing CoinJoin Feature (#GotBitcoin?)
There Are Now More Than 5,000 Bitcoin ATMs Around The World (#GotBitcoin?)
You Can Now Get Bitcoin Rewards When Booking At Hotels.Com (#GotBitcoin?)
North America’s Largest Solar Bitcoin Mining Farm Coming To California (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin On Track For Best Second Quarter Price Gain On Record (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Hash Rate Climbs To New Record High Boosting Network Security (#GotBitcoin?)
Bitcoin Exceeds 1Million Active Addresses While Coinbase Custodies $1.3B In Assets
Why Bitcoin’s Price Suddenly Surged Back $5K (#GotBitcoin?)
Zebpay Becomes First Exchange To Add Lightning Payments For All Users (#GotBitcoin?)
Coinbase’s New Customer Incentive: Interest Payments, With A Crypto Twist (#GotBitcoin?)
The Best Bitcoin Debit (Cashback) Cards Of 2019 (#GotBitcoin?)
Real Estate Brokerages Now Accepting Bitcoin (#GotBitcoin?)
Ernst & Young Introduces Tax Tool For Reporting Cryptocurrencies (#GotBitcoin?)
Recession Is Looming, or Not. Here’s How To Know (#GotBitcoin?)
How Will Bitcoin Behave During A Recession? (#GotBitcoin?)
Many U.S. Financial Officers Think a Recession Will Hit Next Year (#GotBitcoin?)
Definite Signs of An Imminent Recession (#GotBitcoin?)
What A Recession Could Mean for Women’s Unemployment (#GotBitcoin?)
Investors Run Out of Options As Bitcoin, Stocks, Bonds, Oil Cave To Recession Fears (#GotBitcoin?)
Goldman Is Looking To Reduce “Marcus” Lending Goal On Credit (Recession) Caution (#GotBitcoin?)
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