One of the reasons former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was able to get away with stealing top-secret documents about government surveillance programs is because Washington’s system of classifying national security information is badly broken. So many entire categories of data are classified—from how surveillance programs like PRISM work to the altitude at which US warplanes fly—that an astounding 4.9 million people are required to have “Top Secret” clearances just to do their jobs as government officials or, like Snowden, as private-sector contractors working on defense and intelligence matters. The system of vetting these people for clearances is dysfunctional, and national-security experts like former House intelligence committee chairwoman Jane Harman have said recently that the Snowden case is a good example of that.
But the problems extend far beyond who gets security clearances. So says the latest annual report (pdf), published June 20, by the Information Security Oversight Office, whose job is to get agencies to classify fewer documents and to declassify many more of them while making sure that real secrets stay secret.
The ISOO estimates that the government and its contractors spent $11 billion last year on “security classification activities”—plus an estimated 20% more for the CIA, NSA and other agencies whose activities are too secret to even mention in the report. The good news is that this is 13%, or $1.7 billion, less than the year before.