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The not-so-secret secret about those classified documents

The government needs classification reform to ensure transparency and an enlightened citizenry, to make certain that public officials continue to act in the best interest of the nation, and to document historical activities to inform future decisions and policies.

A classified document is framed by shadows on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office on Oct. 5, 2009.Handout/Photographer: Handout/Getty Imag

The recent string of reports about classified documents being discovered at the homes of former president Donald Trump, President Biden, and former vice president Mike Pence should make two truths abundantly clear: first, there is a difference between deliberately taking and hiding documents and inadvertently retaining them, and second, this country’s classification system is in critical need of reform; indeed, national security demands it.

It is not uncommon for former officials from all levels of government to discover they are in possession of classified material. Most turn it over to the appropriate authorities without incident.

This process of returning documents was not overwhelming for me when I served on a congressional intelligence committee, but the task gets exponentially more intense for those whose access spans longer intervals or whose position invites access and usage of multiple more materials.


Those with authorized access to classified materials often face a mixture of classified and unclassified files and, within those files, documents that may fit either category. After accessing these materials, it is incumbent upon users to make the proper distinctions and ensure that documents and files with any level of classified designation remain in a properly secured and designated storage place. Staff are often entrusted with the task of reviewing files to ensure compliance, especially while moving offices, though “the buck stops” with the principal, of course.

Officials from Democratic and Republican administrations agree that far too much information is unnecessarily classified, and there is widespread agreement that the classification and declassification system is at a breaking point. It simply cannot effectively or efficiently handle the volume of digital data generated each day. It cannot handle the volume of records requiring declassification review.

Policies and processes remain much the same from when they were first enacted in 1951 by President Harry Truman in an era when secrets were created on paper and secured in combination safes. They have not kept pace in the digital environment and do not function effectively today. Without reform, it will be far worse in the future.


Under the current system, there are too many records currently obscured from public view because of overclassification or improperly classified items.

There are numerous reasons for overclassification. I have personally witnessed circumstances in which information was classified that should have remained unclassified and for which the only explanation appeared to have been to obscure an embarrassing fact or keep from the public a fact that might alter the conclusion the agency or author wanted drawn publicly. The degree to which this occurs may be disputed but not the fact that it occurs.

Far too many matters are kept undisclosed for other reasons, including a lack of objective criteria to guide original classification decisions, the presence of disincentives for underclassifying a document but absence of disincentives for overclassifying one, the lack of specificity in regulations, and confusion in legal interpretations and in the guidance given to employees.

It’s imperative to keep in mind the danger of having anyone slap a classified designation on documents that don’t deserve it to keep the press and the public from gaining information they have a right to know. It’s in the public interest to have the fullest access to thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary records of significant US national security decisions and activities.


The federal government needs classification reform to ensure transparency and an enlightened citizenry, to make certain that public officials continue to act in the best interest of the nation and its citizens, and to document historical activities to inform future decisions and policies.

In May 2020, the Public Interest Declassification Board, which was established by statute to advise the president on issues pertaining to national classification and declassification, of which I am a member, published recommendations to fix the country’s broken classification system. Our bipartisan group supports the vision for a “uniform, integrated and modernized security classification system that appropriately defends national security interests, instills confidence in the American people and maintains sustainability in the digital environment.”

At her confirmation hearing in January 2021, director of National Intelligence Avril Haines noted that overclassification is a perennial concern and highlighted the importance of transparency and openness. She committed to developing a plan to address this, working with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and others on how best to use technology to modernize the classification and declassification system.

While we should hold accountable those who violate obligations in handling classified documents even in an outdated system, the American people should not let the current debate on those actions obscure the need for public access to government accounts so long as legitimate national security considerations are met.

John Tierney, a former US representative from Massachusetts, is executive director of the Council for a Livable World.