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Biden intel chief says too many classified records are harming national security

Avril Haines speaking at the Center for a New American Security's annual conference in Washington, D.C. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)
January 28, 2022

Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence for President Joe Biden, warned in a letter this month that the U.S. system for classifying information is actually undermining national security and public trust.

In a Jan. 5 letter to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) first revealed by the senators on Thursday, Haines said that by keeping such vast troves of information under classified labeling, the U.S. intelligence community is slowed in its ability to sort through and share critical information with allies.

Haines wrote, “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,” including with intelligence partners, allies, policymakers and the general public.

The current classification system “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,” Haines added. “It is a fundamentally important issue that we must address.”

Haines authored her letter in response to an October request for information from Wyden and Moran. In their request, the Senators estimated that maintaining the troves of classified information costs U.S. taxpayers about $18.5 billion annually.

It’s unclear just how many documents the U.S. keeps classified, but according to the Wall Street Journal, watchdogs and government transparency activists estimate the government is likely keeping billions of records secret. Haines noted the number of classified records is likely also rapidly expanding with the increasing reliance on digital records.

Haines also said the current methods for processing declassifications “are simply not sufficient.”

In her letter, Haines acknowledged there’s a challenging balance to strike between keeping sensitive national security information secret and still being able to share that critical information when necessary.

Haines has previously shared some concerns about the process for storing classified information, but her Jan. 5 letter is the first time she has explained her concerns in such detail.

Sens. Wyden and Moran released her letter in a joint press statement Thursday.

“Director Haines clearly recognizes that the current broken classification system harms U.S. national security while eroding the public’s trust in government,” Wyden and Moran wrote. “The DNI has offered to work with us to reform the system and, as members of the Senate Intelligence and Appropriations Committees, we intend to do so.”

Attached to Haines’ letter were several examples of what Wyden and Moran called “non-public” efforts to reduce the backlog of classified documents.

“We are encouraged by programs to automate the declassification review process,” the senators said.  “We agree with the DNI that efforts such as these need to be better prioritized and funded.  There must also be a process by which the most effective modernization processes are identified as best practices and applied across the government.”