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Overuse and misuse of information classification capture congressional attention

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         March 4, 2005    

Overuse and misuse of information classification capture congressional attention

  • All federal agencies should have oversight boards to ensure government information is not improperly classified, Rep. Carolyn Maloney ( D-N.Y) said after a congressional hearing about government abuse of classification.

March 4, 2005 — An explosion of national security-based document classifications undertaken by government officials sparked a House subcommittee to look at the effects of overclassification both on interagency information sharing, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission, and on the proliferation of labels such as “Sensitive But Unclassified” that hinder access to government information.

After hearing Wednesday from witnesses testifying about the government’s tendency to overuse classification labels, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) pledged to introduce a bill creating new classification review oversight boards at “every single agency.” Witnesses before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations documented frequent government abuse of the authority to classify information.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said that overclassification is a “direct threat” to national security, a view echoed by William Leonard, director of the government’s Information Security Oversight Office.

Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., told the panel that the Bush administration set a record in 2003 for the number of classification decisions, and that the numbers currently being collected for 2004 are expected to “go off the chart.” Historically, he said, 50 to 90 percent of classification designations have been wrong.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer and member of the 9/11 Commission, told the subcommittee that the administration blacked-out swaths of the Commission’s civil aviation system report despite a unanimous request for transparency by the bipartisan commission. The report’s redactions are even more illogical given that “they concern a civil aviation system that no longer exists, ” he said.

The subcommittee also heard testimony about pseudo classification, the increasing use of vague secrecy designations such as “Sensitive But Unclassified,” “For Official Use Only,” and

“Sensitive Security Information,” which are frequently ill-defined and can mean different things to different agencies. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) complained that “many of these designations have been created out of thin air by the administration.” Because they are not defined in statute or even executive order, the government can mark documents liberally with the ill-defined “sensitive” stamp, he said.

Access Reports Editor Harry Hammitt of Lynchburg, Va., said many of these designations are based “on the dubious proposition that secrecy will make us more safe rather than less safe and that agencies and companies will not use secrecy to hide their own mistakes and avoid public scrutiny.”

Harold Relyea of the Congressional Research Service said that it has “not been clear” that attempts were made to weigh citizen needs for information or give thoughtful consideration to limiting rather than totally restricting access to information.

FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, fired for reporting espionage and inefficiencies within the agency’s translation department to her superiors, also testified. Edmonds filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit after she was fired, but the Justice Department argued that her case must be thrown out because everything about it implicated national security. A federal trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

Maloney asked Edmonds for details, including how many languages she spoke. “That is classified information,” Edmonds responded. Maloney incredulously asked if she was joking, and Edmonds assured her that she was not. “Were you born in this country?” Maloney prodded. She refused to answer, because the government has also barred Edmonds from naming her birthplace.

Maloney, who called the treatment of Edmonds “ludicrous” and “ridiculous, ” said her proposed bill to put a classification oversight board inside every single government agency would be named after Edmonds.


© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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