Secretary of state warns of ‘overclassification’: Secrecy stamp endemic in US government

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry © Charles Mostoller
Fear and caution are causing US government officials to classify too many documents, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted. It is estimated the government spends $11 billion to classify over 80 million documents every year.

“There’s a massive amount of overclassification,” Kerry told the Huffington Post, touching on the scandal over his predecessor’s private email server. “People just stamp it on quickly because it's a way to sort of be correct if anybody had a judgment that somehow they had been wrong about whether it should be classified or not. So the easy thing is classify it and put it away.”

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Kerry’s comments may sound like hyperbole, but if anything, they appear to be an understatement. Every year, the US government spends over $11 billion to classify more than 80 million documents, according to a 2013 report by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The government’s propensity to classify everything and anything has even been (gently) mocked by an advertising campaign for Clearance Jobs, a company that connects recruiters with job-seekers who have a federal security clearance. One of the company’s ads in the Washington, DC mass transit system features a “Secret Squirrel” asking who classified his lunch.

A bill aiming to curb the over-classification was proposed in July 2014 by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-Mississippi). In the fact sheet attached to the Clearance and Over-Classification Reform and Reduction (CORRECT) Act, Wyden and Thompson cite an estimate that the government has classified anywhere between 7.5 billion and 1 trillion pages.

According to one estimate, a single intelligence agency produces 1 petabyte of classified records every 1.5 years, which is comparable to “approximately 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text, or about 13.3 years of High-Definition video.”

Wyden and Thompson’s proposal has been stuck in the Senate subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations since September 2014.