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The overclassification problem plaguing the federal government

'It is well past time we restore transparency and accountability in government,' Sen. Paul writes

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questions a witness during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last year.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questions a witness during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Twenty-six years ago, a bipartisan Senate commission chaired by late Senator Daniel Moynihan warned that excessive government secrecy and overclassification would have significant consequences for the national interest. The commission found that “secrecy is the ultimate mode of regulation … for the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated.”

Rather than take stake in the commission’s recommendation that Congress should reassert its authority and reform the executive branch classification system, over the last several decades the problem has only gotten worse.

Executive branch officials from both political parties continue to arbitrarily overclassify government information to prevent oversight and withhold information from the public.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, in 2017, over 4 million Americans with security clearances classified nearly 50 million documents, a system that cost American taxpayers over $18 billion.

President Biden’s own director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, acknowledged the overclassification problem on numerous occasions. As Director Haines said in January, “overclassification undermines the basic trust that public has in its government.”

There is no better example of the undermining of public trust than the federal government’s continued refusal to share information about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic with the American people.

Recently, the Department of Energy shifted its position on COVID-19’s origins and joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in concluding the pandemic was most likely the result of a lab leak. The director of the FBI has publicly confirmed that the bureau’s position is the pandemic most likely originated from a lab. If not for the transparency forced by the media reports, we wouldn’t be able to talk about these important developments.

Congress recently showed strong, bipartisan support regarding the need for transparency on the origins of COVID by unanimously passing a bill requiring the director of national intelligence to declassify information from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of COVID-19.

While I was pleased to see President Joe Biden sign the bill into law, he only committed to declassifying and sharing information “consistent with his constitutional authority to protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security.” Given this administration’s track record on transparency, I am concerned the president’s statement suggests he won’t publicly release all the information that exists.

It’s also not only classified information the executive branch is withholding from the American people on COVID origins. Nearly a dozen federal agencies – including the Departments of Health and Human Services, State, and Defense, as well as the FBI — refuse to disclose thousands of records in their possession relevant to the origins of COVID-19.

Many of these records are not even classified.

I have sent dozens of letters over the course of two years to federal agencies requesting these records, and I have only been stonewalled. In fact, disclosed emails made available by the Freedom of Information Act shows employees of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency scheming to obstruct my request for information on the origins of COVID-19.

The American people deserve transparency and accountability. If we are being asked to sacrifice those values in the name of “national security,” then that definition must be tailored to protect only what is necessary to preserve our sources and methods.

In the Pentagon Papers case, Justice Potter Stewart remarked upon the wisdom of avoiding secrecy for its own sake. In his concurring opinion, Justice Stewart wrote, “when everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion.”

It is well past time we restore transparency and accountability in government. In the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, for which I am ranking member, we have a unique opportunity to address overclassification by the executive branch, and I plan on continuing to do just that.

Dr. Rand Paul is a Republican senator from Kentucky. He is ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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