The age of missing information.

Making government work better.
March 17 2005 7:23 AM

The Age of Missing Information

The Bush administration's campaign against openness.

The government does a remarkable job of counting the number of national security secrets it generates each year. Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent, said William Leonard in March 2 congressional testimony. His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004.

Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases. Once freely available, a growing number of these sources are now barred to the public as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." Less of a goal-directed policy than a bureaucratic reflex, the widespread clampdown on formerly public information reflects a largely inarticulate concern about "security." It also accords neatly with the Bush administration's preference for unchecked executive authority.

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No comprehensive catalog of deleted information exists, which is part of the problem. What follows is a representative selection of categories of data that have been withdrawn from public access in the Bush years, with reflections on what they mean.

Department of Defense Telephone Directory. The Pentagon phone book is a useful tool for reporters, students of defense policy, or others who might wish to contact the Pentagon or gauge the size and shape of the bureaucracy. Anyone could buy it at the Government Printing Office Bookstore until 2001, when it was marked "for official use only." A GPO Bookstore notice advises that it is no longer for sale to the public.

Questioned about the change, a Defense Department official spoke vaguely of "security concerns." This is hard to swallow, since other agencies have failed to follow suit. The Department of Energy, for example, handles information and materials as sensitive as any in government, and it publishes its telephone and e-mail directory on its Web site. Why was this new wall erected between the public and its government?

Los Alamos Technical Report Library. In 2002, the Los Alamos National Laboratory removed from public access its unclassified technical report library, which contained thousands of unclassified Los Alamos technical reports written over a half century. Many are highly specialized studies, comprehensible only to experts. In some cases, although unclassified, they bear directly and uncomfortably on the technologies of nuclear weapons production. But most of them are fundamental studies of materials science, metallurgy, physics, and engineering pursued by the lab over decades.

While a selective re-evaluation and withdrawal of individual reports might have been warranted on nonproliferation grounds, Los Alamos elected to remove them all. "The resource you are requesting is not offered to the public," says a Web notice. An index of many of the withdrawn reports, and some of the reports themselves, are available from the Federation of American Scientists.

Historical Records at the National Archives. Worried that sensitive information may have been improperly declassified in the late 1990s, government agencies took to scrubbing public records at the National Archives and elsewhere, pulling untold thousands of public records for "review" and possible reclassification. Many 30- or 50-year-old archival collections are a shadow of what they were just a few years ago.

On a recent visit to the National Archives, American University historian Anna Nelson recalled, "I found four boxes of Nixon documents full of nothing but withdrawal cards," signifying records that had been removed. In another collection of Johnson records concerning the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, "I found a box of 55 withdrawal cards."

Not all archive withdrawals are unwarranted. For instance, documents containing classified nuclear-weapons design information were discovered in otherwise declassified records collections, as this recent DOE report oninadvertent disclosures indicates. But the scope of current withdrawals goes beyond what's necessary and poses arbitrary obstacles to historical research.

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