Photo via Pete Souza/White House
Less than three years after Wikileaks released the largest cache of classified—and mostly inconsequential—documents in history, Edward Snowden's decision to leak NSA secrets has once again laid bare the goverment's problem with overclassification.
The rise of the government classifying even the most inane of documents has created a massive national secrets complex that's diluted the meaning of "secret." And while civilians are increasingly shut out of the government's workings, 4.9 million government employees and contractors now have access to the country's closest-guarded secrets.
Now, finally, the federal government is showing some signs of restraint when it comes to classifying new secrets, according to a new report from the Information Security Oversight Office, which is tasked with reining in the vast web of classified information.
The report found that the number of new secrets fell by 42 percent in 2012, down to 73,477—the lowest reported level of original classification activity since at least 1989.
Here's the breakdown:
This fall in classification activate made a big difference in the cost of keeping secrets: the ISOO report found that government spending on classification fell 14 percent, or $1.59 billion, last year to $9.77 billion, the first such decline since at least 1996. The number of executive branch officials who are authorized to decide what information could pose a national security threat also dropped to a record low of 2,326 in 2012, according to the report.
The ISOO attributes this new restraint to the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, an initiative established by President Barack Obama that pressures government agencies to classify fewer documents in order to protect the secrets that actually matter.
The plan appears to be working—look how much classification has gone down under Obama:
Of course, there is a caveat. When it comes to derivative classification—a type of reclassification that accounts for most of the documents classified by the CIA and other intelligence agencies—the US is still generating secrets at historically high levels.
Still, the report is encouraging, signaling that the federal government might finally be kicking its compulsion for classification. Perhaps more importantly, the report proves that the national security complex is not some ungovernable blackbox operating beyond any oversight or control, but can actually be restrained and corrected by political pressure and effective policies.