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YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW: Cost, volume of government secrets explode

A U.S. Senate panel plans a hearing on classified records today as privacy advocates stay on alert

By Rebecca Carr

Cox Washington Bureau

March 15, 2005

Washington ---Taxpayers pay nearly $7 billion each year to protect federal records from disclosure, and that doesn't include what the intelligence community keeps secret.

That figure is classified.

The cost and number of secrets rose higher than ever during the Bush administration's first term, the government reports. The total number of security classification decisions jumped 75 percent, to 16 million, in 2004, according to statistics compiled by the Information Security Oversight Office, an arm of the federal government's National Archives and Records Administration that is charged with monitoring classification of secrets.

Open government advocates say this shows official secrecy is on the rise and makes classification a top issue during Sunshine Week, a public awareness campaign that began Sunday to stress the importance of government transparency.

"Secrecy is being used as a shield to protect bureaucratic inaction," said Rick Blum, director of an umbrella group of organizations concerned about government secrecy called openthegovernment.org. "Public officials are using secrecy because secrecy is easier and cheaper than actually informing the public about health and safety problems in their communities."

Members of Congress from both parties are calling for an end to unnecessary classification of records and information as secret. Some want to bolster the Freedom of Information Act, the 39-year-old law that forces the federal government to disclose records. A Senate Judiciary Committee panel has scheduled a hearing today on legislation proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to increase public access to government records.

"I have found there is a greater tendency here in Washington to try and keep things secret rather than to indulge in what should be a presumption of openness," Cornyn said. The taxpayers pay for government, he said, and they should be able to see how their money is spent so they can hold public officials accountable.

It's true that federal agencies classify too much information, said J. William Leonard, director of the federal office overseeing classification. But classification has been a bipartisan problem, dating back to its inception by executive order in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration.

"Overclassification is a real issue, but it's not fair to cast this as a partisan issue because it is an issue that has persisted for decades," Leonard said. The problem, he said, is that public officials have "an automatic impulse to withhold."

Factors such as the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism and the technology explosion reinforce the urge for secrecy, he said.

"The lesson from 9/11 is that the failure to share information can be just as damaging to national security as any unauthorized disclosure of information," Leonard said.

Federal agencies use national security and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as an excuse to keep secrets that might be embarrassing, open government advocates contend.

"We've found evidence that suggests the federal government is classifying to cover up embarrassing mistakes or irresponsible decisions," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Some secrets border on the absurd, open government advocates say.

A report about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's devotion to scotch and pisco sours, as well as a mock terrorist attack on Santa Claus, were marked classified by the CIA.

The danger in overclassification is keeping the public in the dark, secrecy opponents say.

"Overclassification is a direct threat to national security," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's panel on national security. "Somewhere in the vast cache of data that never should have been classified and may never be declassified is that tiny nugget of information that, if shared, could be used to detect and prevent the next deadly terrorist attack."

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, has said 75 percent of the classified material he reviewed did not need to be marked secret.

In addition, the 9/11 commission's investigation concluded that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden could have called off the strikes had authorities publicly arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who raised suspicions at a Minnesota flight school. The commission suggested the publicity could have derailed the attacks.

"The lesson of 9/11 is that we are losing protection by too much secrecy," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, a nonprofit organization that houses declassified materials for the public to examine. "The risk is that by keeping information secret, we make ourselves vulnerable. The risk in that is when we keep our vulnerabilities secret, we avoid fixing them."

After seeing needless classification on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joined forces with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to propose legislation that would create a commission to address the problem.

"Overclassification is one of the fastest growing forces in American government today," Wyden said. "Government documents ought to be classified to protect the America's national security and not overclassified to protect the political security of someone in the bureaucracy."

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wow 7 billion dollar a year, thats incredable ..teehe

someone had to reply

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