Congress on Thursday will take a major step in rolling back the tide of secrecy that has swept through government since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with the House Homeland Security Committee poised to pass two bills making the Homeland Security Department more transparent.
Both bills are expected to pass the committee easily: One would crack down on too-frequent use of classification, while the other would go after “pseudo-classification” - the new labels such as “for official use only” that have popped up to keep even unclassified documents out of the hands of the public and other government agencies.
“This is more than Congress has been able to do in seven years,” said Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat and the bills’ chief sponsor, who said the bills are the result of an alliance of open-government advocates and those who think the government needs to share more information within its agencies for national security reasons.
“The dirtiest four-letter word in government is spelled T-U-R-F, and overclassification and pseudo-classification are ways to protect T-U-R-F,” Mrs. Harman said.
The Sept. 11 commission blamed a lack of information-sharing among agencies for intelligence failures before the attack, and Republicans and Democrats both want to make sure that new turf battles won’t produce a similar breakdown.
A Homeland Security official said late Wednesday that the department opposes both bills.
The official, who spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, said it was unfair to single out the Homeland Security Department from the rest of the federal government. On the specific bills, the official said, the pseudo-classification issues are already being addressed by a presidential memo last month, while the other bill encroaches on the executive branch’s rights to determine the use of sensitive information.
Committee Republicans support the bills’ passage, with a few minor tweaks to allow Homeland Security flexibility if government standards change. The bills passed Mrs. Harman’s subcommittee unanimously, and are expected to cruise through Thursday’s full committee meeting.
Statistics from the government’s Information Security Oversight Office show that documents are being classified at a far faster rate than they are being declassified. In the past few years, total classification decisions across the federal government have jumped from 14.2 million in fiscal 2005 to 23.1 million in 2007, the oversight office said in its annual report this year.
The two Harman bills apply only to Homeland Security, partly because that’s the only area over which the committee has jurisdiction, but also because the department is a new agency and a key test of the classification power.
“DHS is a poster child for nondisclosure and nontransparency at the moment, and if you can make DHS the gold standard, that will set a very strong example,” said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at a hearing earlier this month.
One of the two bills limits the number of people at Homeland Security who are able to designate documents as classified, requires training to make sure they are not classifying too much information, and sets up a system of incentives to encourage employees to report overclassification. It also would have Homeland Security create an unclassified version of some documents so they could be shared with other agencies and state and local law enforcement.
The Homeland Security official questioned the value of the incentives program, saying it could be a disincentive to classify sensitive information that should remain undisclosed.
The other bill enshrines a recent Bush administration memo that tries to crack down on pseudo-classification or controlled unclassified information (CUI) - documents that don’t deserve classification but which the agency still wants to prevent from dissemination. Agencies use both classification and pseudo-classification to protect intelligence sources or methods.
It would make clear those designations don’t protect a document from a Freedom of Information request.
The law recognizes classified and unclassified documents, but since Sept. 11 the CUI designation has popped up governmentwide. Agencies have their own internal designations, and supporters of the legislation said more than 110 different CUI designations are used to keep documents from being shared. A 2006 Government Accountability Office report found one agency had 16 different CUI designations alone.
President Bush, based on recommendations from his new Director of National Intelligence office, issued a memo last month recognizing the explosion of CUI designations and calling for streamlining the number of exceptions.
The DNI office had no comment on the Harman proposals.
Mrs. Harman said she hopes the committee vote will boost the bills’ chances for House floor action and help attract a Senate sponsor.
The measures would start a new way of doing business for the government, said Timothy D. Sparapani, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the bills.
“We will see a new openness and transparency in post-9/11 government, and information which needs to get into the right officials’ hands will get to their hands unimpeded,” he said. “Democrats in Congress, and to a lesser extent the Bush administration, are desperate to get information-sharing up and running.”