WASHINGTON (CN) – Noting that the penalties for underclassifying federal records are steep – compared with the feckless handwringing that greets overclassification – experts told a House committee Wednesday that Congress must take action to curb this crisis.
"Every incentive is to classify," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the House Oversight Committee. "There's almost no disincentive. There are no penalties. I think this is the main reason why Congress has to take action. Because y'all can change the minds of the bureaucracy and how it actually works."
Both members of Congress and the experts who testified at the hearing expressed concern about overclassification, a trend whose persistence they blamed on the executive branch.
"I've come to the conclusion that on its own, the executive branch is both incapable and unwilling to achieve true reform in this area," said J. William Leonard, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy, said agency employees are quick to classify information because they often see it as their "path of least resistance."
Zealous classification has been a problem for years, the experts agreed, but Aftergood suggested the recent developments – from the rise of fake news to the policy positions of the incoming Trump administration – make it a more pressing issue than ever before.
"Transparency is how we protect our political institutions from abuse or corruption or defiance and it's a serious question because we don't know at this point where the incoming Trump administration is going to go and we need to be prepared for anything," Aftergood said in an interview after the hearing.
As easily as the experts explained the myriad causes of overclassification to the committee, they had a harder time landing on what Congress might be able to do to fix the problem.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said there could be some room to institute punishments against employees who overclassify information, either by giving something too high a classification level or by tagging something that does not need to remain secret.
"There has to be some punishment," Amey said. "We can debate what the punishment will be but there has to be some kind of civil, criminal or administrative punishment that happens."
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, proposed giving Congress the power to declassify some material. Leonard seemed to endorse the idea but allowed that the results could be "dicey."
Aftergood said Congress might have to use its control of government funding, known as the power of the purse, to encourage agencies to be adopt better classification habits. He noted with hope that there has already been an increase in challenges to classification decisions from within agencies, a kind of self-policing that might be effective going forward.
"That is a trend that I think could be built on," Aftergood said. "If the system can be made more and more self-correcting, where people inside the system themselves are finding errors and helping to adjust them."
For Aftergood, Wednesday's hearing was more a chance to vent than to find solutions.
"It's more of a foundation for future legislative work than a specific identification of solutions," Aftergood said in an interview. "But that's fine. You've got to start somewhere and I think it's a promising starting point."
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