- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

The federal government last year spent $6.5 billion to create 14 million new classified documents, a 60 percent increase over 2001 that has alarmed government watchdog groups, according to a report by openthegovernment.com.

“While some increase in classification is to be expected in wartime, this dramatic rise runs counter to recommendations by the 911 Commission and the congressional joint inquiry into 9/11, both of which recommended reforms to reduce unnecessary secrets,” says the report by the group of journalists and consumer and government watchdogs.

Federal officials have used the September 11 terrorist attacks to turn the public’s right to know into the government’s right not to tell, said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, a national security watchdog group.

“This is what happens when you give government agencies unlimited authority to control information; they are going to abuse it. That doesn’t mean though there should not be restrictions. Everyone agrees all kinds of things need to be protected, but they are going overboard and no one seems to be in a position to stop them,” Mr. Aftergood said.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States cited “overclassification” of documents as a barrier to information sharing among agencies needed to fight terrorism, and legislators have discussed the issue at hearings held in response to the commission’s report.

Carol Haave, deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, last month told a House subcommittee on national security and emerging threats that as many as 50 percent of classified documents don’t warrant the classification. She said there is a tendency at the Defense Department to “err on the side of caution.”

A portion of the $6.5 billion also was used to secure existing secrets, which typically are never unsealed for public consumption, even when their information really doesn’t need to be protected, experts agree.

Only 43,000 documents were declassified last year at a cost of nearly $54,000 compared to more than 100,000 documents declassified in 2001 prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks at a cost of $232,000, according to openthegovernment.com, whose analysis focused on pre- and post-attack numbers.

A Congressional Research Service report released in June recommends placing time restrictions on the classification of documents, establishing an oversight board to review such classifications and holding periodic congressional briefings on them. It says that, historically, making information public is a primary way to expose and eliminate fraud and abuse in government.

As the number of classified documents continues to rise, so do public requests to disclose government information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Such requests have tripled over the past six years. There were more than 3 million FOIA requests from federal agencies last year, up from 2.4 million in 2002.

There also is a proliferation of ad hoc policies to restrict public access to information that is not classified, but still hidden from the public, legislators and experts say.

For example, documents inside the Homeland Security Department are increasingly being labeled “For Official Use Only,” “Sensitive Security Information,” “Sensitive Homeland Security Information,” and “Sensitive but Unclassified,” the congressional report said.

The report said the use of such terminology is dangerous because it prevents the disclosure of information and questionable policy, which, if seen by the public, could spur change.

“There recently has been a dramatic upturn in the number of documents that have either been stamped SSI or ‘Official Use Only,’ including examples of activities that apparently were of a social orientation, and are clearly not of official nature, let alone of a classified matter,” said Bob Flamm, executive director of the Federal Air Marshal Association.

“It’s being abused on a regular basis,” Mr. Flamm said.

However, Dave Adams, spokesman for the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service, disputes that assertion and says that the SSI stamp is “not just automatically” being stamped on every document unless it is “sensitive.”

“Official Use Only” which is described by a Homeland Security directive as unclassified but sensitive information, would include threat assessment information, security plans, and financial information or information that could threaten security operations.

Federal air marshals (FAM) say e-mail from management is automatically being stamped “Official Use Only” stating that “no portion of any document can be released to the media, the general public … release of any FAM Service document, correspondence or law enforcement sensitive material could adversely affect our mission or jeopardize investigative activities.”

E-mail with the stamps describe medical checkup procedures, vacancy announcements that are also posted on the Internet, and one announced a going-away party for a colleague inviting co-workers “for Krispy Kremes and coffee” for the employee’s farewell.

“That sounds amazing,” Mr. Aftergood said. “It is simply arbitrary. They make it up as they go along, and it’s hard to take seriously.”

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