What are they trying to hide?

Federal agencies are drawing protests from news organizations by removing previously public documents from their Web sites and creating new national security secrets at an accelerating pace.

Since the Bush administration took office in 2001, the National Archives says the number of “classification decisions” – government jargon for putting secrecy stamps on documents – has increased about 75 percent, from 9 million occasions in 2001 to 16 million last year.

William Leonard, director of the information security oversight office at the National Archives, said he couldn’t attribute the increase to overclassification of documents. He said much of the additional secrecy could be understandable, noting that the United States engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during this period and created a new Department of Homeland Security.

But it’s not just traditional classification activities that have increased. Jacques Gansler, director of the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise at the University of Maryland, said that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, government agencies are increasingly deeming unclassified materials as secret and withdrawing public information from their Web sites.

The spread of new security procedures throughout the government is provoking complaints from interest groups and news organizations, which next week are launching a “Sunshine Week” to highlight difficulties in getting information from the government. Agencies routinely exempt materials considered sensitive but unclassified from release under the Freedom of Information Act, making it virtually impossible for the news media or the public to force disclosure.

Gansler, who oversaw Pentagon research and acquisition programs during the Clinton administration and now serves as vice president for research at the College Park campus, said information on dangerous pathogens and materials that could be used to make biological weapons should be treated with sensitivity. But he said the federal government has gone overboard with a battery of new regulations bottling up information that should be readily shared with the public and academics.

“We gain enormously from having an open environment,” Gansler said. “Making security too tight can have serious costs.”

Gansler said he’s found more than 50 sets of differing rules issued by government agencies on how to handle sensitive information that is unclassified. He said the effects of new regulations go beyond government agencies because universities with government contracts or government contractors are also required to give special handling to the sensitive material and safeguard it from being seen by foreign students or the public.

He said there’s no agreement in the government over what constitutes sensitive but unclassified materials, and the bureaucracy is overreacting by withdrawing materials from public view. He said prohibiting foreign students from access to material will only result in those students going to other countries, where they don’t face similar limitations on their research activities.

Gansler argues that the federal government needs to come up with a proper definition that that can be used to handle what he believes would be the rare instances where sensitive information should be suppressed. He said defining the material is difficult. “It’s sort of like pornography _ you know it if you see it,” he said.

Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists that tracks government secrecy issues, said the government has none of the set procedures for handling sensitive but unclassified materials as it does for the real national secrets.

With real secrets, “there are clear definitions of what should be classified and provisions for oversight and procedures for declassification at the end of the period. With unclassified controls, there are none of those procedures,” he said.

Aftergood also believes the government should be cautious in imposing new security procedures, which could interfere with scientific research and an academic process that identifies promising areas for new studies and points out dangers and mistakes.

“I think the agencies are making it up as they go along, and that’s not a rationale for withholding information,” he said. Among the arbitrary decisions Aftergood points to is the Pentagon’s banning of the sale of its phone book by the Government Printing Office. The phonebook now is classified “for official use only.”

Another unaddressed problem is eventually removing the secrecy stamp from sensitive but unclassified materials. Unlike classified secrets, Aftergood said there are no current regulations for how to handle sensitive but unclassified information once it is transferred to the National Archives.

The Archives currently declassified most material older than 25 years old, but has special exemptions for nuclear-related government information. The CIA also has reclassified some materials in the Archives that it contended were improperly classified, and members of Congress protest that some papers concerning former Nazis who cooperated with the CIA after World War II are still classified.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com)