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.

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

    Government agencies have withdrawn from public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
    release.

    “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.)