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Government secrecy reaches historic levels.

The U.S. government currently classifies documents at the rate of 125 a minute, using vague labels such as "sensitive security information," according to The New York Times.

Driven in part by fears of terrorism, government secrecy has reached a historic high. For example, a record 15.6 million documents were classified last year, nearly double the number in 2001, according to the federal Information Security Oversight Office. Meanwhile, the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed significantly--from 204 million pages in 1997 to just 28 million pages last year.

The increasing secrecy is expensive to maintain. The office estimated that it cost taxpayers $7.2 billion last year.

The acceleration of secrecy began after the 2001 attacks, according to the Times, as officials sought to restrict access to information that Al Qaeda might use to take advantage of the United States' vulnerabilities. Such worries have not faded, but more politicians and advocacy groups across the political spectrum say there is too much secrecy.

"You'd just be amazed at the kind of information that's classified-everyday information, things we all know from the newspaper," Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey told the Times. "We're better off with openness. The best ally we have in protecting ourselves against terrorism is an informed public."

The Times cited examples of unnecessary classification, including: the Central Intelligence Agency's court fight this year to withhold its budgets from the 1950s and 60s; the Defense Intelligence Agency's deletion of the fact that the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was interested in "fencing, boxing, and horseback riding"; and the Justice Department's blacking out of a four-line quotation of a published Supreme Court decision.

"I've seen information that was classified that I've also seen published in third-grade textbooks," said J. William Leonard, who fought over-classification during his three years as director of the Information Security Oversight Office.

Today, many more individuals can classify a document as secret than ever before. Since 2001, President Bush has extended the power to classify documents to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture. At the Agriculture Department, where officials are concerned about agroterrorism, the Times said employees can visit the agency's website and print out a "sensitive security information" cover sheet.

According to the Times, such labels for unclassified information deemed sensitive have multiplied in recent years, going beyond the traditional "for official use only" to "law enforcement sensitive," "homeland security sensitive," and other vague tags.

Some believe the new Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) will help guard against excessive secrecy. The House recently approved a bill that would fund the PIDB, an advisory group that was established by law five years ago but never actually convened. The board will receive its first allocation of funds next fiscal year.

Congress established the board to advise the president on ways to prevent agencies from classifying documents that should be public. According to the House report on the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, the House Appropriations Committee will allocate $1 million to the PIDB.

Approval of the funding would mark an end to an embarrassing impasse in which the PIDB has been unable to meet even though most of its members have now been named by the Bush White House and Congressional leaders.

As an advisory body, the board is not empowered to enact structural changes to the classification system, nor does it have any independent &classification authority. Still, supporters say it will provide an official venue to air concerns over classification and declassification policies.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
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Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:UP FRONT
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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