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SHAHEEN CALLS ON WHITE HOUSE TO INCREASE TRANSPARENCY, REDUCE WASTEFUL SPENDING BY REFORMING CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM

May 30, 2013

(Washington, DC) – Emphasizing the need to increase government transparency and reduce wasteful spending, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) today urged the White House to implement reforms to our nation’s system of classifying official records. Shaheen specifically called on the Administration to act upon the recommendations of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) to establish a White House-led steering committee to begin addressing the issue. Currently, outdated classification systems and policies result in the over-classification of government documents at the expense of transparency and taxpayer dollars.

According to PIDB, a single intelligence agency classifies one petabyte of data every 18 months – equivalent to 20 million filing cabinets filled with text or approximately 13.3 years of high definition video. The cost of storing these files has doubled over the past decade from $4.7 billion in 2001 to $11.36 billion in 2011.

“Transparency is a foundational principle of our democracy.  The American public has a right to access official records in order to provide appropriate oversight of their elected officials.  Secrecy in our government should be limited, and used only when absolutely necessary to protect our national interest,” Shaheen wrote in her message to the White House. “The inability of our current systems to manage data associated with modern security operations has not only resulted in excessive cost to the tax-payer, it has also created a culture of secrecy that is antithetical to our democratic traditions and undermines public confidence in our institutions.”

This January, PIDB released a report detailing concerns with the current classification system and calling for reforms to the current system. The report also described the impact of over-classification in increasing the likelihood of sensitive information being leaked, as a result of the sheer volume of materials requiring classification.

The proposal offered by PIDB has been supported by over 30 government transparency advocacy groups, including the Constitution Project and the Project on Government Oversight. 

The full text of Shaheen’s letter is below:

                                                                                                May 30, 2013

President Barack Obama                                                                                                                                

White House                                                                                                                                             

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue                                                                                                                      

Washington, DC

Mr. President:

Our nation’s security classification and declassification systems are inadequate and outdated.  As you continue to evaluate potential reform, I urge you to establish a steering committee at the White House to lead your efforts.

Designed prior to World War II, our classification systems and policies were never intended to manage the enormous amounts of data associated with the digital age.  According to the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), a single intelligence agency classifies a petabyte of information every 18 months.  One petabyte is equivalent to approximately 20 million filing cabinets filled with text or about 13.3 years of high definition video.  At the current processing rate, it would take two million employees a full year to manually review one month’s worth of classified records.  Moreover, the cost of storing these files has doubled over the past decade from $4.7 billion in 2001 to $11.36 billion in 2011.

I agree with the recommendations of the PIDB that establishing a White House working group on classification and declassification would be a meaningful first step toward addressing this issue.  One of the primary challenges of this type of reform effort will be ensuring active participation from stakeholders across the national security community.   A White House-led committee would provide the leadership and political support necessary to overcome bureaucratic obstacles as well as ensure our efforts are coordinated and efficient.  It would also reflect the sense of urgency this matter requires.  As you know, this proposal is also supported by over 30 non-profit groups dedicated to transparency and efficiency in government including the Constitution Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Project on Government Oversight. 

Transparency is a foundational principle of our democracy.  The American public has a right to access official records in order to provide appropriate oversight of their elected officials.  Secrecy in our government should be limited, and used only when absolutely necessary to protect our national interest.  The inability of our current systems to manage data associated with modern security operations has not only resulted in excessive cost to the tax-payer, it has also created a culture of secrecy that is antithetical to our democratic traditions and undermines public confidence in our institutions. 

I hope you will consider establishing a White House steering committee on security classification reform and continue to address the problem of over-classification in our government. 

Sincerely,

Jeanne Shaheen                                                                               

United States Senator

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