Bipartisan Group Looks to Fix ‘Hopelessly Obsolete’ Classification System

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is one of the sponsors of the bills.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is one of the sponsors of the bills. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Legislation is aimed at reducing over-classification and improving the handling of secrets.

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation on Wednesday to reform the information classification system in order to reduce over-classification and prevent the mishandling of classified documents. 

“I’ve known for years that our system for classifying, safeguarding and declassifying national security information is hopelessly obsolete,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said during a press conference. “We’ve got a byzantine, bizarre, bureaucratic system that has not kept up with the times, has not moved at all to digitalization, so consequently we continue to vastly over-classify huge amounts of information, while at the same time not fully protecting our nation’s most important secrets.” 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the intelligence committee, said the discovery of classified documents in the homes or offices of former President Trump, President Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence brought this issue to light and got some thinking that when the government classifies too many documents, it’s easy to get lackadaisical with the handling of them.

One bill—the Classification Reform Act—would designate the director of national intelligence as the executive agent for classification and declassification, which would lead to “whole of government” reforms; ensure that information can only be classified when the national security harms outweigh the public interest to know; enforce a 25-year period for classification; “tax” agencies based on their use of classification; and require a security review of presidential and vice presidential records to make sure that documents with classified markers aren’t designated as personal records incorrectly. 

This bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Warner, Cornyn, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Angus King, I-Maine, Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Bob Casey, D-Pa.

The other bill— the Sensible Classification Act—would codify who has classification authority; promote efficient declassification of records subject to the Freedom of Information Act or Mandatory Declassification Review; require training for “sensible” classification; provide the Public Interest Declassification Board with more staff; and direct federal agencies to review how many security clearance holders they actually need. 

The co-sponsors are the same as the other bill’s with the addition of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and James Lankford, R-Okla.

Wyden said during the press conference that when Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines responded to him and Moran in a letter last year, saying she agreed with them that there are issues with the current classified system, “we turned a corner” because “this was the first time anyone in her position said something like that.” Haines expanded on this during remarks she gave in January, stating that over-classification is an issue and it undermines democracy. 

In addition to the Trump, Biden and Pence situations, the introduction of the bills also comes after a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was charged last month in connection with leaking hundreds of classified documents on social media. The Pentagon took some actions to prevent further leaks, but a senior Defense Department official who works in insider threat detection told Defense One the actions don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is that the government classifies too many documents and overestimates how long documents will stay classified. 

When asked if the senators have spoken with Biden administration or White House officials about the bills, Warner said “they are very aware that this is coming.” He added that he believes some in the intelligence community might have “consternation” with the proposed changes, but “this is a debate whose time has come.”