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Government withholds 'sensitive-but-unclassified' information
Scripps Howard News Service


February 03, 2006

WASHINGTON - Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal calls them "secrecy orders" - nondisclosure agreements that the federal government is requiring citizens in his state to sign before they can see plans for a liquefied-natural-gas station on scenic Long Island Sound.

The restrictions are just another example of government efforts to restrict widespread public release of so-called sensitive-but-unclassified information.

Government agencies have withdrawn from public scrutiny thousands of pages of information - ranging from information on the location of nuclear plants, to plant diseases that could devastate crops, to designs of bridge abutments.




The information clampdown is in force in varying degrees at all of the federal agencies. After the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigated high injury rates among workers at the Portland, Ore., airport, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2004 blocked any public release of OSHA's findings on the grounds it contained sensitive-but-unclassified information.

Environmental groups and other activists complain that routine data on the dangers of nuclear plants and chemical-plant emissions now have dried up.

And information is not just being withheld from the public. The TSA also has refused to give local governments information on rail shipments of hazardous materials going through their communities on the grounds that it is sensitive but unclassified and can't be shared.

In the case of the liquefied-natural-gas station, the restrictions represent a compromise between the need to keep sensitive information out of the hands of terrorists and the rights of citizens to obtain public information on safety and environmental issues, said Tamara Young-Allen, spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Commission.

"We think it works very well," Young-Allen said, noting that her agency helps decide the locations of natural-gas pipelines, among other issues. "Would you want a map of those pipeline connects so a terrorist sitting in a cave in Afghanistan could get that information?"

But the Federal Energy Commission's procedures differ widely from other federal agencies - and that seems to be a problem.

President Bush says the federal government needs a unified approach to dealing with sensitive-but-unclassified information, and among the first orders he's given new Director of National Security John Negroponte is to come up with one. Bush said he wants final recommendations for any changes by December.

The movement to declare some government information as sensitive but unclassified has been one of the most contentious issues the government has undertaken since the 9/11 attacks.

The TSA appears to be the most aggressive in enforcing the requirements. After declaring no-fly areas around nuclear power plants, the TSA ordered the Airline Owners and Pilots Association to take down from its Web site maps informing pilots where these areas were. The TSA in 2004 also asked news organizations to remove references to security problems at the Rochester, N.Y., airport that were exposed by a contractor in testimony before a congressional committee.

Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists who publishes the newsletter Secrecy News, said the effort has created turmoil in the government, as federal bureaucrats have tried to figure out what is sensitive-but-unclassified information and how to segregate it from the information they regularly release.

"The government's information policy is a state of near-chaos," Aftergood said, noting there's no consistency for dealing with sensitive-but-unclassified information - not only with the public, but with federal contractors, and even among government agencies.

Aftergood said the basic problem the government faces is that there is no agreement on what constitutes "sensitive-but-unclassified." He said he doubts it is possible to write a uniform definition.

A 2004 study by the Congressional Research Service found that agencies are creating their own definitions based on interpretations of patent and privacy laws, Cold War restrictions on sales of technology to communist countries, and even a 2002 letter from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft directing federal agencies to take the broadest possible exemptions to prevent release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Aftergood also questioned why Negroponte is being assigned to spearhead the review of policies, when his job is to oversee and coordinate classified programs. Sensitive-but-unclassified information doesn't involve classified information, he noted.

Negroponte spokesman Carl Kropf responded by saying that part of Negroponte's job involves coordinating more efficient ways of sharing intelligence across the government.

Kropf said the current approach to handling the material has resulted in confusion. "There is some concern that the existence of multiple secret-but-unclassified designations - each governed by its own unique set of procedures - adds a layer of complexity to efforts to share information," he said.

It's too early to say what changes will be made, or if they will result in more information being withheld by the government.

"The goal of the effort is to enhance the sharing of information amongst those entities responsible for protecting our communities from future attack," Kropf said.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)

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