Cases ranging from that of Army Private Bradley Manning, tried by a general court-martial, to that of fugitive government contractor employee Edward Joseph Snowden raise serious questions that have to be addressed. These questions go far beyond the fate of either man, and involve sweeping and costly federal programs that are obviously important to national security. They reflect the remarkable environment in which we now live, where, thanks to such technological wonders as the internet and reasonably-priced smartphones, access to information has never been broader or easier, and where compelling public and private interests in secrecy and privacy are ever-present.
Responsible observers have long argued that too much information is being classified. There seems to be increasing general agreement on this subject, but the solution remains elusive. The federal courts have thus far disclaimed power to second-guess classification decisions, and few challenges to classification decisions within the executive branch seem to gain traction, although every now and again the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel determines that some document an agency claims to be classified actually doesn't qualify.
Beyond this and, if anything, more concerning is the astounding number of individuals who hold security clearances. We have been surprised that low-level personnel such as Private Manning and Mr. Snowden were granted high-level clearances. Can it really be that so many people need clearances to perform their functions? Aside from whether these men were properly granted clearances, clearances are hardly free. Depending on the level of classification, issuance of a clearance can be costly, with the cost borne by the taxpayer. Moreover, a sizable additional apparatus exists to adjudicate the suspension and revocation of clearances for government and contractor personnel whose conduct does not measure up to the (extremely vague) standards for holding a clearance.
Congress should conduct a careful investigation of these matters, including whether any agencies were deficient in overseeing the security and personnel practices of Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor for which Mr. Snowden last worked before fleeing to, at first, Hong Kong. What did the contracting agency know about that firm's practices? Was the contractor's human resources or security department asleep at the switch?
Finally, Congress has to do some self-examination. Has it been sufficiently proactive in monitoring the government's classified information program? And has it fallen into bad habits by delegating too much power to a handful of Intelligence Committee legislators whose lips are sealed about what they have been briefed on.
There are big lessons to be learned from the Manning and Snowden cases. We hope Congress will seize the opportunity these cases present to shrink and discipline the current bloated classified information program.