The Age of Missing Information
The Bush administration's campaign against openness.
"Orbital Elements" and Launch Dates. The U.S. Air Force records the orbits of Earth satellites in its "orbital elements" database. For nearly 20 years, it has made the database available to the public through NASA. But beginning at the end of this month, it will be subject to new government restrictions on distribution, including restrictions on any analysis of the underlying data.
"This is a crisis," wrote David Finkleman in a letter to Space News earlier this year with pardonable hyperbole. The new policy, he explained, "could ... impair international efforts to mitigate space debris and prohibit all who use DoD space surveillance data in their research from discussing or publishing their work without the approval of the Office of the Secretary of Defense."
And for what? The current policy "has operated for decades without ever compromising national security."
Most recently, the tide of space-related secrecy has even swept over the launch schedule for unclassified Air Force missions. As reported by Janene Scully in the Santa Maria Times on March 13, "Vandenberg's unclassified schedule Web site has evolved from giving detailed information such as launch dates and liftoff times to more recently revealing only the month for a mission. Now even that is gone."
The Military Retreat from the Web. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. Army began moving online content from public Web sites to a password-protected portal called Army Knowledge Online. Untold thousands of documents, from policy directives and regulations to newsletters to after-action reports and all kinds of other records—all unclassified—disappeared from public view.
Since there is no reliable inventory of what's been removed, the loss to democratic oversight of defense policy is incalculable. Last year, the Air Force followed the Army lead, disabling numerous formerly public Air Force Web sites and moving data to a restricted portal. A U.S. Air Force official presented the change as a public service to Inside the Air Force. "By removing redundant, confusing, or inappropriate information available to the public, the [Air Force] will deliver a more consistent and coherent message to the public."
Energy Department Intelligence Budget. The budget of the tiny Office of Intelligence in the Department of Energy had been unclassified for as long as anyone can remember, and certainly for more than a decade. In fiscal year 2004 it was $39.8 million dollars, about one tenth of a percent of the estimated $40 billion that the U.S. now spends on intelligence.
But in 2004, DOE categorized the amount requested and appropriated for its intelligence program as classified information, because its disclosure "could reasonably be expected to cause damage to national security."
This is an ironic move, considering that budget information is one of the only two categories of government information to which the public has an explicit constitutional claim (the other is the Journal of Congress). Moreover, the publication of intelligence-agency budgets was one of the 41 recommendations proposed by the 9/11 commission as a means of combating the excessive secrecy that has undermined the performance and the accountability of U.S. intelligence agencies.
No official explanation for the change is forthcoming, beyond the national security claim. One department official said that the classification action was taken at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency, which found DOE's unclassified intelligence budget inconsistent with its position that no such budget information should ever be disclosed.
Aeronautical Maps and Data. Last November, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency publicly announced its intent to halt distribution of a series of aeronautical maps and other publications that had long been available to the public. The proposal, based partly on security grounds and partly on intellectual property claims, immediately drew respectful protest.
Steven Aftergood writes the Federation of American Scientists newsletterSecrecy News.