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Government's 'reclassification' concerns House committee

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 15, 2006

Government’s ‘reclassification’ concerns House committee

  • The importance of balancing records classification and the public interest was stressed by representatives from agencies and nongovernmental organizations who testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday.

March 15, 2006  ·   Congressional testimony that the nation’s archivist first learned of the government’s massive seven-year effort to remove previously declassified historical documents from the National Archives in The New York Times struck a chord Wednesday with members of a House subcommittee, who raised concerns about that program and other unknown classification efforts.

In its third hearing on overclassification — the first open to the public — the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations heard from Archivist Allen Weinstein who, after learning of the reclassification program, placed a moratorium on removing or reconsidering declassified records within the Archives, pending an audit to determine which records had already been removed, and by whom.

“It’s a complex situation and we’re trying to get a handle on it,” Weinstein told the panel. “The story that was uncovered is not a tolerable situation; there is a need for immediate change . . . we are on the case.” The Information Security Oversight Office is conducting the audit; its results should be available within the next 60 days, Weinstein said.

The subcommittee heard from a range of experts from a panel of government agency employees, including Weinstein from the National Archives, as well as a separate panel of three independent parties, including a historian, the private researcher who first learned of the reclassification project and a representative from the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

While focusing on overclassification, the witnesses extensively discussed “Sensitive But Unclassified,” or “SBU,” designations, for which no uniform classification system exists across federal agencies. Information deemed SBU includes “For Official Use Only,” “Official Use Only” and falls short any of specific Freedom of Information Act exemption, but provides notice to an agency that a document should get a hard look before public release.

The Government Accountability Office has recommended that agencies that mark a document SBU note which FOIA exemption would apply; a measure that the Defense Department disagrees with, Davi. D’Agostino, the director of defense capabilities and management for GAO told the panel. She noted the lack of training and oversight which effectively prevent a department from assuring that its employees are following the policies. “There is a lack of clarity in key areas that could lead to inconsistencies,” she said.

Subcommittee members also learned that any of the Defense Department’s 2.5 million employees has the authority to classify a document as SBU, subject to review of a supervisor, but with the possibility that a supervisor would never see or review the classification, according to Robert Rogalski, a Defense Department undersecretary.

National Security Archives executive director Thomas Blanton told Chairman Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) that given the opportunity, he would have asked “What’s stopping DoD from cutting the 2.5 million number?” and suggested that the agency could — and should — limit its authority on who can designate a document to be SBU.

Shays told the agency representatives that he is bothered by the information released in a prior hearing that the Defense Department has overclassified 50 percent of its records while other agencies have between 50 to 90 percent overclassification rates. “People who need this information won’t get it,” he said, adding that he is looking to the panel to “head in the right direction” in solving the overclassification problems.

The committee also questioned the Defense Department’s “memorandum of understanding” outlining a classified agreement with the National Archives — a document that the National Security Archives has requested under FOIA and which Shays and other committee members expressed an intent to review and hear testimony about.

“This has an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality — the memorandum is ‘secret’ between the Archives and DoD . . . and regulates how the Archives deals with DoD,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) added that “one of the strongest parts of government is the ability to look at problems, discuss them publicly” and solve them. Without even being able to review the memorandum, it is not possible to evaluate it, she pointed out.


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