Information Wants to Be Free

What is the price we pay for our security? How many secrets must be kept from us in the name of the “war on terrorism?” According to an article in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, the amount of government data that is being kept secret is on the rise. While in the past, documents could only be kept from the public through designations such as “Classified,” or “Top Secret,” officials can now use over 50 designations for documents to keep them from ordinary citizens. Documents that had previously been declassified, such as the names and phone numbers of Pentagon officials and the Defense Department’s topographic charts, have now been marked with titles such as “For Official Use Only,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and “Not for Public Dissemination.” Information can be marked as such by anyone in the government bureaucracy, including low-level workers like government clerks. With such loose definitions able to sweep documents under the pall of secrecy, the public is losing once unclassified information about their own government, and at a fast rate. No one has been keeping track of the exact amount of unclassified information that is no longer available to the public eye, but watchdog groups say that the use of these new secrecy terms has grown sharply in the last four years. However, the government keeps no records of re-classified material, and the parameters by which material can be hidden from the public eye are vague at best. The change in policy goes beyond the mere semantics of secrecy. In the past, exactly 4,007 government officials had the power to make information classified. Requests for classification had to be appealed, and there were time limits for all requests. All classified data was kept track of carefully. However, with these new vague designations, as many as 180,000 people (everyone in the Homeland Security Department) has the ability to make information secret to citizens. Addressing allegations that these designations are not in the public’s best interest, Bush once said, “I understand that there’s a suspicion that we’re too security-conscious. I hope that we’re becoming balanced between that which the public ought to know and that which, if we were to expose, would jeopardize our capacity to do our job, which is to defend America.” Critics have found, though, that useful information is often unnecessarily blocked by bureaucrats, or that information is hidden that could potentially be embarrassing to the intelligence community or to the Bush administration. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the State Department released a statement claiming that terrorist attacks were at their lowest levels since 1969. However, it was later discovered that the numbers cited in the statement were completely wrong, and that the number of terrorist attacks were actually at a 20-year high. A report released the September just before the election blamed the CIA for producing “faulty numbers.” This information was designated “Sensitive But Unclassified” for obvious political reasons, but was later brought to attention by Henry Waxman, a Democratic Representative from California. In another instance of overzealous secrecy, the Defense Department pulled its entire library of unclassified documents, as well as other information off its website. This followed an attack by a human rights group that discovered a draft of a proposal that would limit Iraqi detainees’ rights to due process. While the website eventually came back up, large amounts of information were missing. Luckily, under the Freedom of Information Act, citizens still have the power to view information deemed “For Official Use Only.” However, the Bush administration recently reversed the FIA procedure from acting with “presumption of disclosure,” to withholding all information unless there was no “sound legal basis” for it. So how are the citizens of America affected? Maybe they don’t affect our everyday lives, but the new levels of secrecy within our government are very serious. 16 million documents were classified by the government in 2004, and that number excludes the manifold documents that are “Not for Public Dissemination.” Democrats and Republicans alike have united in their opposition to these new procedures within the intelligence community. “Achieving the true consent of the governed requires informed consent,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn. He added that, “Such consent is possible only with an open and accessible government.” At least we can all agree on something.