Overzealous government secrecy

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal calls them “secrecy
orders” — nondisclosure agreements that the federal government is
requiring citizens in his state to sign before they can see plans for a
liquefied-natural-gas station on scenic Long Island Sound.

restrictions are just another example of government efforts to restrict
widespread public release of so-called sensitive-but-unclassified

Government agencies have withdrawn from public
scrutiny thousands of pages of information _ ranging from information
on the location of nuclear plants, to plant diseases that could
devastate crops, to designs of bridge abutments.

The information
clampdown is in force in varying degrees at all of the federal
agencies. After the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and
Safety Administration investigated high injury rates among workers at
the Portland, Ore., airport, the Transportation Security Administration
(TSA) in 2004 blocked any public release of OSHA’s findings on the
grounds it contained sensitive-but-unclassified information.

Environmental groups and other activists complain that routine data on
the dangers of nuclear plants and chemical-plant emissions now have
dried up.

And information is not just being withheld from the
public. The TSA also has refused to give local governments information
on rail shipments of hazardous materials going through their
communities on the grounds that it is sensitive but unclassified and
can’t be shared.

In the case of the liquefied-natural-gas
station, the restrictions represent a compromise between the need to
keep sensitive information out of the hands of terrorists and the
rights of citizens to obtain public information on safety and
environmental issues, said Tamara Young-Allen, spokeswoman for the
Federal Energy Commission.

“We think it works very well,”
Young-Allen said, noting that her agency helps decide the locations of
natural-gas pipelines, among other issues. “Would you want a map of
those pipeline connects so a terrorist sitting in a cave in Afghanistan
could get that information?”

But the Federal Energy Commission’s procedures differ widely from other federal agencies _ and that seems to be a problem.

President Bush says the federal government needs a unified approach to
dealing with sensitive-but-unclassified information, and among the
first orders he’s given new Director of National Security John
Negroponte is to come up with one. Bush said he wants final
recommendations for any changes by December.

The movement to
declare some government information as sensitive but unclassified has
been one of the most contentious issues the government has undertaken
since the 9/11 attacks.

The TSA appears to be the most
aggressive in enforcing the requirements. After declaring no-fly areas
around nuclear power plants, the TSA ordered the Airline Owners and
Pilots Association to take down from its Web site maps informing pilots
where these areas were. The TSA in 2004 also asked news organizations
to remove references to security problems at the Rochester, N.Y.,
airport that were exposed by a contractor in testimony before a
congressional committee.

Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the
Federation of American Scientists who publishes the newsletter Secrecy
News, said the effort has created turmoil in the government, as federal
bureaucrats have tried to figure out what is sensitive-but-unclassified
information and how to segregate it from the information they regularly

“The government’s information policy is a state of
near-chaos,” Aftergood said, noting there’s no consistency for dealing
with sensitive-but-unclassified information _ not only with the public,
but with federal contractors, and even among government agencies.

Aftergood said the basic problem the government faces is that there is
no agreement on what constitutes “sensitive-but-unclassified.” He said
he doubts it is possible to write a uniform definition.

A 2004
study by the Congressional Research Service found that agencies are
creating their own definitions based on interpretations of patent and
privacy laws, Cold War restrictions on sales of technology to communist
countries, and even a 2002 letter from then-Attorney General John
Ashcroft directing federal agencies to take the broadest possible
exemptions to prevent release of documents under the Freedom of
Information Act.

Aftergood also questioned why Negroponte is
being assigned to spearhead the review of policies, when his job is to
oversee and coordinate classified programs. Sensitive-but-unclassified
information doesn’t involve classified information, he noted.

Negroponte spokesman Carl Kropf responded by saying that part of
Negroponte’s job involves coordinating more efficient ways of sharing
intelligence across the government.

Kropf said the current
approach to handling the material has resulted in confusion. “There is
some concern that the existence of multiple secret-but-unclassified
designations _ each governed by its own unique set of procedures _ adds
a layer of complexity to efforts to share information,” he said.

It’s too early to say what changes will be made, or if they will result in more information being withheld by the government.

“The goal of the effort is to enhance the sharing of information
amongst those entities responsible for protecting our communities from
future attack,” Kropf said.

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