Biden Spy Chief Says Document Classification Process Flawed: Report

Biden Spy Chief Says Document Classification Process Flawed: Report Avril Haines Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. (Graeme Jennings – Pool/Getty Images)

By Charlie McCarthy | Thursday, 27 January 2022 11:47 AM

President Joe Biden’s director of national intelligence told lawmakers that a flawed process of classifying documents undermines national security and lessens public trust in government.

Avril Haines offered her assessment in a letter earlier this month to Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan. The letter was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

"It is my view that deficiencies in the current classification system undermine our national security, as well as critical democratic objectives, by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner [with allies, policy makers and the public]," Haines wrote, WSJ reported.

Haines wrote the letter in response to an October request for information from the senators, who have pushed for overhauls of the declassification system.

Wyden and Moran — who have said classification costs taxpayers about $18.5 billion annually — says the current system frustrates federal agencies that struggle to process secret information no longer sensitive.

Government transparency advocates told WSJ that Haines' concerns about how spy agencies choose what information to keep secret is among the most significant by a president’s sitting intelligence chief.

The advocates added that Haines' letter could indicate broader interest in the administration for loosening restrictive access to some currently classified documents.

It is believed the amount of classified documents — quickly growing, in part, because of the explosion of digital communications — could include billions of records, according to watchdogs and open-government activists.

"[Such secrecy] reduces the intelligence community’s (IC) capacity to effectively support senior policy maker decision-making, and further erodes the basic trust that our citizens have in their government. It is a fundamentally important issue that we must address," Haines wrote, WSJ reported Thursday.

She added that current attempts to address the exponential growth of classified material "are simply not sufficient."

Advocates for government transparency say that intelligence agencies are overly restrictive when it comes to classifying documents. They say that the process prevents the public from knowing about such security issues as drone strikes in foreign countries, surveillance practices, and offensive cyber operations.

Some unfavorable critical data becomes public only after Freedom of Information lawsuits from media organizations, or if an official risks jail time by leaking classified material.

Nationally security officials historically have defended expansive classification practices as necessary to their core intelligence collection missions.

"Some of the most consequential decisions our government makes are related to national security," Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told WSJ.