President Donald Trump got a letter recently that he and Congress ought to pay attention to. Mark Bradley, director of the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration, repeated a worrisome warning he delivered to the president last year and that has been echoed by others for more than a decade: The current system for managing the nation's secrets and for declassifying them is being overwhelmed in the digital age. As Bradley put it, current users inside and outside the government believe it is "unsustainable and desperately requires modernization."
The simple problem is that the government classifies too much and doesn't declassify enough. The process for managing secret information is still largely based on when it applied to paper documents and was carried out by individuals. Meanwhile, classified digital information has exploded; individuals can no longer keep up. As Bradley told the president, the U.S. government has failed to invest in new applications to support more precise, consistent and accurate classification decisions, or for processes to prepare mountains of information for declassification and public access.
This is shortsighted. It threatens a basic building block of democracy - the ability of government to preserve secrets that need to be protected, while declassifying that which does not need to be kept secret in a systematic and credible way so the public can be informed and officials held accountable for policies and actions. As the Public Interest Declassification Board stated in a 2012 report, the system "keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long; it is overly complex; it obstructs desirable information sharing inside of government and with the public."
In his Aug. 16 letter to the president, Bradley said the current system for handling classified national security information "relies on antiquated policies from another era that undercut its effectiveness today." Many government officials are learning how to exploit artificial intelligence, machine learning and other tools for their main tasks, but these advanced methods are "untapped" for handling the nation's secrets, he says. Bradley did not make specific recommendations for spending but called attention to the overall problem of underinvestment.
The 2012 report noted that the government was then classifying petabytes of information annually. A petabyte is a million gigabytes, or by one estimate, 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with double-spaced text on paper. Bradley estimated the government is now creating petabytes every month of classified data and a lower category, "controlled unclassified data." The besieged staffers who process this avalanche of classified data should be free to focus on the most important decisions about secrecy, and use technology and streamlined procedures for the rest. But the agencies have generally not wanted to invest in modernization when they have other urgent needs for scarce resources. Trump and Congress should prioritize this investment. The nation can't wait until the backlog of classified information becomes so forbiddingly large that no one will ever be able to process it. That is not a good way to manage the nation's secrets, nor its history, nor its democracy.