Government secrecy is at a historic high

Terror fears help drive classification of records

July 03, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Driven in part by fears of terrorism, government secrecy has reached a historic high by several measures, with federal departments classifying documents at the rate of 125 a minute as they create new categories of semisecrets bearing vague labels such as "sensitive security information."

A record 15.6 million documents were classified last year, nearly double the number in 2001, according to the federal Information Security Oversight Office. Meanwhile, the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed to a relative crawl, from a high of 204 million pages in 1997 to just 28 million pages last year.

The increasing secrecy - and its rising cost to taxpayers, estimated by the office at $7.2 billion last year - is drawing protests from a growing array of politicians and activists, including Republican members of Congress, leaders of the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks and even the top federal official who oversees classification.

The acceleration of secrecy began after the 2001 attacks, as officials sought to curtail access to information that might tip off al-Qaida about America's vulnerabilities. Such worries have not faded; just this week the Department of Health and Human Services sought unsuccessfully to prevent publication of a scientific paper about the threat of a poisoned milk supply on the ground that it was "a road map for terrorists."

But across the political spectrum, there is concern that the hoarding of information could backfire. Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said the failure to prevent the 2001 attacks was rooted not in leaks of sensitive information but in the barriers to sharing information between agencies and with the public.

"You'd just be amazed at the kind of information that's classified - everyday information, things we all know from the newspaper," Kean said. "We're better off with openness. The best ally we have in protecting ourselves against terrorism is an informed public."

Kean said he could not legally disclose examples of unnecessary classification that he discovered. But others cite cases of what they call secrecy running amok - the Central Intelligence Agency's court fight this year to withhold its budgets from the 1950s and '60s; the Defense Intelligence Agency's deletion of the fact that the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was interested in "fencing, boxing and horseback riding"; and the Justice Department's insistence on blacking out a four-line quotation of a published Supreme Court decision.

Secrecy has long been denounced by liberal watchdog groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which released a report June 21 asserting that information controls threaten to undermine progress in scientific research. But more conservatives are emerging as skeptics, including Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, whose bill to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act passed the Senate last week.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, requires that any legislation creating new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act explicitly disclose them. It is only part of overhaul efforts proposed by the two senators.

Cornyn, a former state attorney general, said he had been trying to persuade his colleagues that freedom of information was not just a concern of the news media. "The people should get the information they need to see if government is doing what they want," he said.

He gets no argument from J. William Leonard, who in his three years as director of the Information Security Oversight Office has waged a lonely battle against overclassification. "I've seen information that was classified that I've also seen published in third-grade textbooks," Leonard said.

Such missteps might come in part from inexperience. Since 2001, President Bush has extended the power to classify documents to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. At the Agriculture Department, where officials are concerned about agroterrorism, employees can visit the agency's Web site and easily print out a bright-yellow "sensitive security information" cover sheet.

Such labels for unclassified information deemed sensitive have multiplied in recent years, going beyond the traditional "for official use only" to "law enforcement sensitive," "homeland security sensitive" and other vague tags.

"We find there's such a proliferation of these bogus categories," which lack clear rules or definitions, said Lawrence J. Halloran, an aide to Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican., who held a hearing on excessive secrecy in March.

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