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House 'sensitive but unclassified' discussion concerns scientists

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Oct 11, 2002    

House ‘sensitive but unclassified’ discussion concerns scientists

  • At a hearing before the House Committee on Science, Bush administration officials and scientists discussed how to balance needs for greater security with needs for open communication of scientific research information.

The House Committee on Science held a hearing Oct. 10 to explore whether there are needs to limit public access to scientific information that could be categorized as “sensitive but unclassified information.”

The Committee looked at whether the government should place any restrictions on publicly availably “scientific studies that could be used as ‘blueprints’ for terrorists.” It also looked at potentially restricting the types of courses that foreign students from certain countries might be allowed to take in the United States.

The discussions raised concerns that the government might consider new restrictions on access to information produced both by government and non-government scientists.

John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy testified as to the kind of scientific information that the government releases to the public. He said that his office is still “months away” from making a decision about how it will handle “sensitive but unclassified information” and “sensitive homeland security information.” Marburger said that the government must ensure that America’s “research enterprise” be safeguarded from terrorists.

According to Marburger, his office has been holding discussions with various scientific, academic, private and public interest groups to decide what kind of guidance it will give federal agencies to consider before they release scientific information to the public.

Panelists from academic circles at the hearing said the government should minimize restrictions.

“I do not believe that it would serve the best interests of [society] for agencies to create a gray area of research called ‘sensitive but unclassified’ and treat the category of research differently from unclassified research,” said M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who testified.

“The onus for blocking publication should be on the government through a process that is clearly defined, free of arbitrary edicts and understood by the research community,” Greenwood added.

The three panelists, Greenwood, Sheilah Widnall from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ron Atlas of the University of Louisville’s agreed that “self policing” by academics was preferable to government regulation.

Committee chairman Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) gave no indication as to how the committee might act on these issues.

“The war on terrorism will be won in the laboratory just as much as on the battlefield,” Boehlert told the committee. “If the laboratory is a theater of war, then what are its rules of engagement? War demands secrecy; science thrives on openness. How can a free society balance those competing demands?”


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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