SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Ten years ago, the US government overhauled the way it handled classified information. The changes were designed to limit the number of classified documents and the length of time they were withheld from the public. But since 9/11, more information than ever is being kept from the public. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
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JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the rotunda at the National Archives in Washington, DC, to view some of America's most important historical documents. There's the Declaration of Independence, with its underlying principle that the government derives its powers from an informed American public.
There's also a secrecy oath from the Second Continental Congress in 1776 which led to the Declaration of Independence. Members of the congress agreed to keep all proceedings of the congress secret or be considered an enemy of American liberties, says William Leonard, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, a department of the National Archives.
Mr. WILLIAM LEONARD (Director, Information Security Oversight Office): And then, of course, we have the Constitution, that the whole purpose for this social compact is to provide for the common defense, and, of course, the common defense in today's parlance, we call that national security.
NORTHAM: These documents, outlining the need for secrecy, for national security and the government's deference to an informed public, represent a fine balance that's just as important, just as relevant today as it was more than 200 years ago. But over the past few years, that balance has altered. Leonard says a recent report by his information oversight office found a steady increase in the number of classified documents.
Mr. LEONARD: For the year 2004, what our report highlighted was that there were in excess of 15 1/2 million classification decisions, where someone in the government created an information product and decided that it was appropriate to affix classification markings to it.
NORTHAM: That's about double the number of documents that were classified in 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks. Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official during the Clinton and this administration, says he's not surprised that much more information is being classified.
Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (Former Counterterrorism Official): When a nation is at war and an administration adopts a wartime footing, then there is a natural inclination to further classify things. Anything that could be associated with deployment of troops overseas, with steps at home related to identifying potential terrorism activity, you want to keep that classified.
NORTHAM: But it's not cheap to keep information from view. The price tag for classifying documents in 2004 alone was $7.2 billion. Scott Armstrong, the executive director of Information Trust, which tracks government secrecy, says there's no question the administration needs to keep some things secret. But Armstrong says the huge leap in the number of top-secret documents shows the administration is overclassifying information.
Mr. SCOTT ARMSTRONG (Director, Information Trust): The way the systems work is more energy goes into protecting it from other officials, from people that have control of taxpayer dollars or people that are politically interested than actually goes into it from protecting it from our enemies.
NORTHAM: The 9-11 Commission, investigating what led up to the September 11th terrorist attacks, found that hoarding information from the public and from one agency to another adversely affected the government's handling of the threat from al-Qaeda. Michael Hurley is with the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, a follow-on to the 9-11 Commission. He says the commission found that the government should classify less information rather than more.
Mr. MICHAEL HURLEY (9/11 Public Discourse Project): The problem of overclassification was seen as kind of contributing to that problem of a failure to share information, so we did make a recommendation concerning this, and it was that we needed to rethink through this whole notion of classification to some extent.
NORTHAM: But the 9/11 recommendations have yet to fully take root. In fact, more layers of bureaucracy have been developed to deal with information that's not formally designated as classified, information that would not jeopardize national security but could still be considered sensitive. Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, says many federal employees, including 180,000 workers at the Department of Homeland Security, now have the ability to withhold information by using one of dozens of newly created designations. Aftergood says those designations all have official-sounding names.
Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Director, Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists): `For official use only,' or `sensitive but unclassified,' or `limited official use'--these are all markings or designations that can be used to block the release of unclassified information, and they are used very aggressively.
NORTHAM: Aftergood says there are at least 50 of these new categories. Some are based on law, such as the Privacy Act, which bars information such as Social Security numbers from being made public, but many other designations are drawn up by the individual federal agencies. Various rules and criteria apply. This is a different system than that dealing with classified information, which has stringent rules and limitations, and only about 4,000 people have the authority to make decisions about what should be deemed classified, secret or top secret. Rick Blum, the director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of government watchdog groups, says in contrast, the decision to withhold information that is not officially classified is completely discretionary. Blum says the situation is out of control.
Mr. RICK BLUM (Director, OpenTheGovernment.org): We don't have a handle on all of the different ways that government can keep unclassified public information from the public. We don't have oversight and we don't know who's using it and what for.
NORTHAM: Blum says that while some of the unclassified but sensitive information, such as maps or details about chemical plants, could be used by terrorists, it's also valuable to the public.
Mr. BLUM: If there was a dam breach, what would happen to your community? Are you living downstream, upstream? The community would like to know what the plans are.
NORTHAM: Blum says in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the need to obtain maps and information about a community is even more crucial. William Leonard, with the Information Security Oversight Office, agrees there are deep flaws regarding the withholding of unclassified material. Leonard says he doesn't condone it, but he can see how a federal employee would err on the side of caution.
Mr. LEONARD: The very human reaction is, when in doubt, I never get in trouble for withholding. I may get in trouble for sharing something inappropriate, but I never get in trouble for withholding. That's the thing that we have to change.
NORTHAM: But withholding information can lead to mistrust in government, especially if it's discovered that the government has quietly developed policies that could have far-reaching consequences, for example, the administration's policies on detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects. The so-called torture policies became public only after the abuse scandal erupted at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. It renewed the age-old debate about the public's right to know vs. the government's need to protect national security.
Jackie Northam, NPR News.
STAMBERG: Tomorrow, the government's power to dismiss court cases on the grounds of national security.
This is NPR News.
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