Menus Subscribe Search

Taming the U.S. Government’s Secrecy Machine

• May 26, 2011 • 3:07 PM

The plodding effort to bring a modicum of common sense to how the U.S. declassifies its documents has resisted most efforts to rev it up in the digital age.

The Nixon Presidential Library plans in June to officially release the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War that was famously first published, in part, by The New York Times in 1971. In the four decades since, the document has been the focus of innumerable newspapers articles, dozens of books — including both complete versions of the actual text itself — and even a couple of movies.

But until now, the Pentagon Papers have never been formally declassified by the government originally responsible for writing them.

This odd fact underscores the convoluted and plodding nature of a U.S. secrecy system that classifies many documents not needing such protection and releases too slowly many others that have long since gone benign.

Barack Obama came into office pledging to reform this beast, although the process he set in motion has been moving about as slowly as the broken system it seeks to repair. Only 19 out of 41 agencies met Obama’s deadline this past December to review their classification policies and begin implementing reform. And as Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, has observed, the president was never all that specific in exactly what he was looking for in a “fundamental transformation” of the system.

The problem — as exemplified in the official release of a document that’s been easily accessible for decades — clearly requires big ideas more than bureaucratic adjustments. And as part of the government’s efforts, a Public Interest Declassification Board has been considering some of the major architectural changes that would be required to fix and move the system into the 21st century. The board oversees the government process and reports directly to the president (it also reported to the public at a forum today in Washington), although it has little power to compel individual agencies to adopt its ideas.

Jennifer Sims, director of intelligence studies at the Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies, was appointed by Obama to the board. One if its main challenges, she said, is the sheer volume of the backlog — and the requirement that every agency with any interest in an individual document has the right to review it. A document that contains classified information about weapons of mass destruction originally obtained by a CIA agent, for example, must be reviewed by the Department of Energy and the intelligence community.

“This multiagency review of a single document exponentially increases the amount of work involved and the number of eyes that have to review the document,” Sims said. “But that’s all just dealing with the paper documents. The real challenge is going to be handling the volume of digital material that’s being generated every day now.”

Think of how many emails flow in and out of your inbox every day — and multiply that by every government employee in every federal agency from the Defense Intelligence Agency to the National Security Agency.

The information age is yielding reams of official communication not even worth saving, let alone classifying. But for all the ways technology is complicating secrecy, it also holds promise for redesigning the entire system. Part of the board’s mandate is to visualize how that might work not just today but 20 years from now.

“That’s a big task,” Sims said. “That’s a DARPA-type task, a truly transformative task, which makes the work very, very difficult.”

So what would a federal classification system look like on the other end of a “fundamental transformation”? Sims offered her vision, one of several on the board.

“It would almost be an artificial-intelligence-like capability,” she said, “so that we would have no longer this 25-year rule. Documents would be constantly searched by a central automated processing capability that does contextual analysis of every document ingested into the system.”

Such software would crawl through the government’s digital record in real time, determining which documents warrant classification, which don’t and which need to be reviewed by a human eye. It could automatically redact sensitive material and tag classified documents with a targeted release date. Older paper records could be digitized and fed into the system. A user interaction component could allow policymakers to dip into the trove to examine documents or release them, as current events require.

“It is a whole system that solves the front-end problem, which is sometimes overclassification of documents or underclassification of documents or inconsistent classification of documents,” Sims said, “and at the back end, also allows us to process much more rapidly in real time the declassification.”

The technology isn’t so far-fetched. But whether such a lumbering government system could realistically transform itself in this mold — that’s the other question.

“We want to think bold,” Sims said, “but at the same time not get so bold that we don’t grapple simultaneously with our current issues.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.