Congress to Pentagon: Don’t go too far in locking down classified info

While lawmakers agree that the system needs to be revamped, they want to make sure that doesn’t result in a full-scale government lockdown of the nation’s secrets.

Both Democrats and Republicans say it’s important to control who has access to information, while also reducing the amount of material that’s classified in the first place. There is so much needlessly classified information that the government cannot effectively protect the truly sensitive intel, they argue.

“People realize that there’s a lot of stuff that gets classified that really shouldn’t be,” Senate Intelligence Committee member John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview. “The volume of classified materials has just exploded because of computers. And so they are not able to manage it. It’s a real problem.”

The issue of overclassification has been a longstanding concern, and news of the leak occurred just as the federal government was opening talks to revamp the process.

In 2021, a group of four-star military commanders in 2021 sent a rare and urgent plea to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence looking for ways to declassify and release more intelligence about adversaries’ bad behavior. Weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lawmakers called on the administration to “lean forward” to declassify information about Russian war crimes.

A central feature of the Biden administration’s intervention in the war has been a novel strategy of rapidly declassifying and publicizing intelligence in near real-time, chiefly to head off false narratives from Moscow. It’s also been used to line up support for Kyiv’s war effort in allied capitals, as when the U.S. reportedly shared the conclusion that China was considering giving military support to Russia.

For intel agencies, sharing information with allies and private-sector victims of cyber attacks has become more important than ever, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a speech in January. That’s why the government must solve the problem of overclassification, which she acknowledged has become “more acute, exacerbated by the growing amount of data available across a wide range of agencies.”

A 2013 government report found that a single intelligence agency classifies one petabyte of data every 18 months, or 49 million cubic feet of paper, she said.

The recent intel breach highlights the tricky balance the government has to strike between the imperative to share intelligence between government entities and the need to limit its access to those with a “need to know.”

“We have to find a happy middle; that’s something we’re absolutely watching,” said House Intelligence and Armed Services Committee member Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.).

Regardless of which way lawmakers are leaning, momentum is growing in both the House and Senate to adjust intel agencies’ system for classifying intelligence.

“There’s way too much overclassification,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview. He called the possibility of overcorrecting “the issue” as lawmakers discuss potential changes.

McCaul cited his inability to obtain a document from the 1998 prosecution he led of Johnny Chung, convicted for tax and election law violations, as an example of the inability of the government to declassify information — even when the matters involved have been resolved a long time.

To be clear, many lawmakers want the investigation into the Pentagon leak to wrap before taking any legislative steps. While some are wary of any action that would impede greater sharing between agencies, which emerged in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, others express caution about declassifying too much.

Since news of the latest leak surfaced, lawmakers have pressed Pentagon officials to explain why a network manager in a state National Guard unit would need access to high-level intelligence or the top secret network that hosted it: the military’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.

“I still don’t know why the intelligence unit of that Massachusetts air wing had any particular need to be part of the network,” said Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “There may be an answer to that. But just because you’re maintaining a network doesn’t mean that you need to see documents, or have the authority to print them out, or the ability to walk them out of a building.”

It’s not only the Pentagon leak but the recovery of records at properties associated with President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence that has injected a jolt of energy into long-simmering congressional efforts to revamp the handling of classified records.

“This is a thoroughly broken system,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in an interview. “I’m not convinced that people and documents that should be classified can get classified, and [there are] many documents that are classified that shouldn’t be classified.”

Wyden, with Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Cornyn and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), have been working on changing the classification system for years. Wyden and Moran offered a bipartisan bill in May 2020 on the issue, after which Warner’s panel held a hearing on ways to change the system, to no avail.

Reform efforts will now have to incorporate “these new developments,” Wyden said, referring to the presidential classified records incidents and the Pentagon leak.

“It’s been difficult because there’s no real political benefit,” Moran said in an interview. “This is about doing something well and right — what should be done — but there’s not a hue and cry across the country.”

Warner summed up the juggling act ahead for lawmakers as they seek to make changes.

“[We] probably need to classify less and then at the highest levels of classification potentially have a smaller universe of people looking at them,” he said, calling the presidential classified information and Pentagon leak incidents “bookends” for problems in the current classification system.