Unveiling Secrets

It's tough to share information when agencies are restricting access to more of it every day.

"Loose lips might sink ships" proclaims the admonitory World War II poster. So might public access to the Defense Department's phone book, apparently. Until 2002, anyone could buy it from the Government Printing Office bookstore. But since, it's been under orders of concealment within the Pentagon, stamped with the anti-distribution warning, "For Official Use Only."

FOUO is one of about 60 (there's disagreement about the exact number) tags federal agencies apply when they want to clamp down on information not secret enough for inclusion in the government's formal classification scheme. But agencies have different designations and different policies on how to treat sensitive but unclassified information. At some, it's senior officials only. At the Defense, Homeland Security and Energy departments, it's any employee.

Agency use of what critics call "pseudo-classification" designations is on the rise-a growing reinforcement of a federal culture of information hoarding. "There is no underestimating the bureaucratic impulse to 'play it safe' and withhold information," said J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, to a trade association in 2003. But keeping information secret can be just as dangerous as recklessly disseminating it. No official numbers exist to track how often unclassified information becomes restricted, but the trend is unmistakably upward.

Reasonable people can disagree on why. "I've had people at the Pentagon tell me, 'Our building was attacked, end of discussion,' " says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. The general post-Sept. 11 growth in government secrecy reflects a changed, more dangerous world-although even in that environment, overclassification is a serious problem. But unlike classified information, restrictions on unclassified information are not regulated, and examples of abuse are easy to find.

There are legitimate reasons to restrict unclassified data, such as protecting government-collected personal or proprietary information. But when any employee of large departments can limit access, the practice clearly has gotten out of hand, says Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. "There are no limits and no rules," he says.

The proliferation of unavailable but unclassified documents is harmful, critics say. Unlike classified documents, there's no requirement that agencies remove restrictions from unclassified documents for later public distribution. There's no oversight, no standards on their imposition, no appeals about their application. They're making a mockery of real secrets, says John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org. "When everything is protected, nothing is protected," he says.

A cursory Google search turns up many online documents stamped FOUO. One result is a transcript of an Oct. 13, 2004, public meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Advisory Committee on the Medical Uses of Isotopes. People mistake the official nature of government business with FOUO restriction, Pike says. They see "For Official Use Only" written on government vehicles, and conclude that everything official in nature is FOUO, he says. The more people try to slap on restrictions, the less meaningful those limits become, so the likelihood of sensitive information leaks paradoxically increases. "It needs to be used selectively, or it becomes futile," Aftergood says.

The executive and legislative branches recognize that a problem exists. In a Dec. 16, 2005, memo, President Bush called for standardizing procedures governing sensitive but unclassified information. The House Government Reform Committee voted unanimously April 6 on legislation that would do the same, as well as require the government to establish limits on how long a sensitive but unclassified tag would remain valid.

Info-stingy agencies are flouting a "veritable patchwork quilt" of information-sharing protocols, Leonard said in 2003: "Never before have we had such a clear and demonstrable need for a seamless process for sharing and protecting information, regardless of classification."

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