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Away From Home

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Government secrecy is out of control

Secrecy in the federal government is completely out of control:


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 semi-secrets bearing vague labels like "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which made millions of historical documents available annually in the
1990's, 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 Qaeda
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," Mr. Kean
said. "We're better off with openness. The best ally we have in
protecting ourselves against terrorism is an informed public."

Mr. Kean said he could not legally disclose examples he discovered of
unnecessary classification. 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 1950's and 60's; 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.

The best way to protect America is not to cover up the problems, it's

Openness is a necessary ingredient of our intended form of government:
"By the people, of the people, for the people." Of course there is
some information that needs to be secret, such as military battle
plans. But hiding the fact that a foreign leader is interested in
particular sports is just absurd and arbitrary.

In any other country of the world, a government that gets to determine
what information the public is allowed to know is called
"authoritarian," "undemocratic," or "communist." Here in America,
it's called "the Bush administration."


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