Beyond the risk that key data on security threats might be stuck in bureaucratic silos — with one agency not talking to another— the escalating cost of keeping so much information comes at the worst possible time of record, punishing deficits.
As the Brennan Center notes, "far too much information is classified." There's also too little accountability for officials who throw up a veil over documents and other information.
Even more troubling is the fact that this vast cloak of secrecy spreading over more and more government activity coincides with greater scrutiny than ever before of individual Americans' private communications.
In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, then-President George W. Bush authorized warrantless surveillance of citizens' international e-mail and phone conversations — spying that, while under court challenge, continues under various provisions of the antiterrorism Patriot Act.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies trolled for information on 1.3 million cellphone users' text messages, calling locations, and other data last year as part of investigations, it was reported this week.
At a time when the average citizen has so few secrets, it's appropriate to ask why the government has so many. But changing course won't be easy.
The more than quadrupling since 1995 of classified information is an outgrowth, the Brennan Center report found, of a system in which there are few penalties for locking up too much information. That fuels a culture of secrecy that is no doubt enhanced by fears of another major terrorist attack, which, after all, was the impetus for creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Among several sensible reforms being promoted as a result of the report, the most straightforward would be to require that officials explain why they are classifying specific information — with periodic inspector-general audits of an official's rationale. The agencies could then impose sanctions, such as revoking classification privileges, on officials who needlessly seal information.
Over time, such reforms might steer more officials away from secrecy that serves no compelling purpose. That would be in keeping with this nation's tradition of government transparency, which must be highly prized in a democracy. Even more important, greater openness could mean that never again will information critical to saving lives be kept under wraps.