Thursday, July 8, 2004

A government watchdog agency has asked the Pentagon to explain why parts of a memo about the interrogation of detainees in the war on terror were once classified.

William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, said the classification was part of a disturbing trend, what he called a “bureaucratic impulse” for officials to “almost reflexively reach out to the classification system.”

The memo, declassified and released last month, is the report of a working group on interrogation techniques established in January 2003 by the Defense Department’s general counsel.

The relevant passage — marked “secret” prior to declassification — is part of a discussion of the consequences for criminal and military prosecutions of detainees and others if the public became aware of the use of so-called “coercive interrogation techniques.”

It reads: “Consideration must be given to the public’s reaction to methods of interrogation that may affect the military commission process. The more coercive the method, the greater the likelihood that the method will be met with significant domestic and international resistance.”

The administration’s policy regarding secrecy, laid out in an executive order signed by President Bush in March 2003, says that information can lawfully be classified only if its “unauthorized disclosure … reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security … .”

“Looking at that paragraph,” Mr. Leonard said, “it’s difficult to see how that information [could] … damage national security.”

Lawmakers argue that overclassification is rife in the federal government, and critics of the administration have accused it of abusing classification to hide merely embarrassing or inconvenient information.

The working-group report is what classification specialists call “part marked,” meaning that each paragraph has its own code indicating how secret it is. Several paragraphs in the report are marked “U” for unclassified.

“On its face,” Mr. Leonard said, the classification of this passage “reflects a disturbing lack of understanding of the constraints and limitations [of] the executive order … .”

Mr. Leonard said it was especially disturbing because the working group that drew up the report included some of the most senior lawyers in the Defense Department.

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