The federal government created 53,425 official secrets last year.

How many of them should actually be secret?

Maybe a tenth or a quarter — but certainly no more than half, according to testimony on Capitol Hill last week.

The number of new classified records fell to a record low in 2014, before rising somewhat last year, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.

Yet classification, the practice of restricting who can see sensitive records, remains an enormous, costly and frequently self-defeating exercise, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said Wednesday.

The federal government spent $17.44 billion on security classifications last year — an all-time high — and twice the entire budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The whole idea of classification is about protecting Americans by safeguarding truly sensitive information. But what emerged in testimony last week at the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is a secrecy system run amok.

One example offered was a June 1967 intelligence brief for President Lyndon Johnson released last year to the National Security Archive, a research and open government advocacy center housed at George Washington University.

The CIA blanked out a reference to Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, who died in 1970. How did the archive know that? It got a cleaner copy of the same document from the LBJ Presidential Library — in 1993.

Last month, the Pentagon released a security memo from 1986 with portions blacked out, even though someone else at the Pentagon released the entire thing in 2010.

Just this year, the White House released a mostly unredacted version of 28 pages of a 2002 congressional investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks that discussed Saudi Arabia’s potential ties to the attackers.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a member of the oversight committee, had pushed for years for their release, against two administrations worried about the effect on foreign relations. Massie called some of the material still being withheld a “textbook case of how government overclassified something in an effort to control the narrative.”

Fear of embarrassment is not a legal reason to keep something secret.

“I think we all agree, some of this stuff is ridiculous and there’s an incentive to simply cake on more classification,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. “When you overclassify, I think it actually undermines the core reason of why you want to do it.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., noted that Congress has virtually no information about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s massive confidential informant program. “We’re being stonewalled in wide areas of public interest, and I feel like it’s hampering Congress’ ability to do its job.”

Congress has the power to force the CIA, NSA, Pentagon, State Department and all the rest of them to stop keeping so many secrets. In 1997, a bipartisan commission came up with a plan to do so. But its 16 recommendations were never fully implemented.

People go to prison for revealing government secrets. No one gets punished for withholding information that should be shared with the public. So the secrets multiply, as well as the dollars spent maintaining them.

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, told the House committee to expect a “tsunami of electronic information” to wash into the bureaucracy that dribbles out declassified records, page by page.

No one knows yet how a Trump administration will view its power to keep stuff secret. But Blanton, Aftergood and other advocates urged House members to scale down the secrecy machine.

“Y’all can change the minds of the bureaucracy and how it actually works,” said Blanton. “You can change the law and their hearts and minds will follow.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.