- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Government Accountability Office will investigate methods used by the Department of Homeland Security to classify documents, which key members of Congress say is being done randomly.

The review was called for by Democratic Reps. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and Martin Olav Sabo of Minnesota, ranking member of the homeland security subcommittee.

The Washington Times reported Saturday that one homeland security agency is regularly stamping documents off-limits to public review.

“We have accepted that request” to review the classification system, a GAO spokesman said yesterday.

The congressmen cited several examples of confusing designations, including a government telephone list stamped “Sensitive but Unclassified.”

“We are baffled as to how a telephone list, containing only government phone numbers, can be determined to contain sensitive information,” the congressmen said in a Sept. 14 letter to David Walker, GAO comptroller general.

The Transportation Security Administration declared information regarding the electronic screening of checked baggage at airports was “Sensitive Security Information,” even though the same information already had been made public, the letter said.

“The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and more recent terrorist acts internationally involving foreign transportation sectors, highlight the need to protect sensitive government information while keeping the public informed of information that could affect their safety and security,” the congressmen said in the letter.

“Although the release of certain sensitive information could put the nation’s citizens and infrastructure at risk, the federal government should be mindful of the public’s legitimate interest in, and right to know, information related to threats to the transportation system and associated vulnerabilities,” the letter said.

The government declassified 43 million pages of documents last year but spent $6.5 billion to classify 14 million new documents. The cost includes the maintenance of previously classified records, according to openthegovernment.org, a government watchdog group.

The Times reported Saturday that documents inside the Department of Homeland Security are increasingly being labeled “For Official Use Only,” “Sensitive Security Information,” and “Sensitive but Unclassified.”

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.

Rick Blum, coordinator for openthegovernment.org, said the GAO review is “long overdue.”

“We need to get some rationality in the way government keeps secrets and still informs the public,” Mr. Blum said.

“We don’t need the combination to the locks, but we need to know the locks are being used and we need this oversight to keep us safe and secure,” Mr. Blum said.

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