According to a recent Congressional Research Service report (via Secrecy News), the Obama administration’s working policy is that US officials can disclose classified information (to reporters, and others) so long as it suits the needs of the government.
The CRS report, written by legislative attorney Jennifer K. Elsea, continues: “Nothing in the order provides explicit authority to release classified information that exists apart from the authority to declassify, but it is possible that such discretionary authority is recognized to release information outside the community of authorized holders without formally declassifying it.” Indeed, this appears to be an accurate characterization of actual practice.
In any case, “there is little to stop agency heads and other high-ranking officials from releasing classified information to persons without a security clearance when it is seen as suiting government needs.” Again, an accurate description– particularly since “the Attorney General has prosecutorial discretion to choose which leaks to prosecute.”
If ever there were a clearer indication that the classification process is not about protecting the safety of Americans, but rather about protecting the government from unwelcome facts…
In the context of Obama’s war on transparency – his crackdown on whistleblowers and attacks on legitimate journalism as national security threats are now infamous – the CRS report is quite revealing. Last month, Obama started implementing new standards for cracking down on whistleblowers – or, as officials sometimes call them, unauthorized leaks.
You see, it’s not the unauthorized leaks – which are apparently illegal – that Obama doesn’t like. It’s when those leaks make his administration look bad, or negligent, or criminal.
The most relevant example is the practice of constantly bragging about killing “terrorists” in the drone war, while turning around and claiming they can’t be subject to any public scrutiny on the technically classified program.
In an environment of successive whistleblowers, the Obama administration has driven the conduct of the Executive Branch underground. Consider that the government spent more than $11 billion dollars in 2011 just on keeping secrets from the American public (compared with $4.7 billion in 2001).
There is a radical trend towards over-classification. Document reviews conducted by Information Security Oversight Office in 2009 discovered violations of classification rules in 65% of the documents examined, with several agencies posting error rates of more than 90%. According to the ISOO, the government made a record 76,795,945 classification decisions in 2010, an increase of more than 40% from 2009.
“To me it illustrates the most important problem — namely that we are classifying far too much information,” Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News told the New York Times recently. “The credibility of the classification system is collapsing under the weight of bogus secrets.”