Homeland Security Department employees no longer must sign an agreement that bans them from disclosing unclassified information on matters such as security plans or technology, according to a new directive.
The nondisclosure agreements also let government officials “conduct inspections at any time or place for the purpose of ensuring compliance” with the rule, drawing criticism from free-speech advocates.
Effective this year, that requirement “has been superceded” by an education program that will teach employees how to safeguard “sensitive but unclassified (for official use only) information.”
That training “will ensure that each employee has the knowledge they need to recognize and handle Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) information responsibly,” and the signed agreements are no longer valid, said a Jan. 11 memo from Janet Hale, Homeland Security’s undersecretary for management.
All employees were required to sign the agreements because they are “entrusted with vast amounts of SBU information every day, and regularly and rightfully share it with other federal agencies and our partners in state and local governments, tribal officials, and the private sector,” the new directive says.
The nondisclosure agreements were meant as an “interim measure to efficiently and effectively educate employees and communicate the standards” quickly, the directive says.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists said the “abrupt reversal” in the policy, which he exposed last November, is a “hopeful sign.”
“It represents an increasingly unusual ability to review existing policies in the light of changed circumstances and to revise them accordingly,” Mr. Aftergood said.
The federal government spent $6.5 billion to create 14 million new classified documents in 2003, a 60 percent increase from 2001, according to a report by openthegovernment.org.
“While some increase in classification is to be expected in wartime, this dramatic rise runs counter to recommendations by the 9/11 commission and the congressional joint inquiry into 9/11, both of which recommended reforms to reduce unnecessary secrets,” says the project’s report, written by a group of journalists and consumer and government watchdogs.
Mr. Aftergood says some federal officials are exploiting the September 11 terrorist attacks to turn the public’s right to know into government secrets.
The sensitive information covered by the new directive also includes financial information or information that could threaten security operations, but some federal employees and members of Congress complained that the official secret-making power was being abused.
The Washington Times reported in September that the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) was regularly stamping documents off-limits to the public, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed to a request by Congress for an investigation of other misuses.
The GAO review was called for last session by Democratic Reps. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and Martin Olav Sabo of Minnesota, ranking member of the panel’s homeland security subcommittee.
The congressmen cited several examples of confusing designations, including a government telephone list stamped “Sensitive but Unclassified.”