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.

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 What follows is a representative selection of categories of data that have been withdrawn from public access in the Bush years, with reflections on what they mean.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.

"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.

Librarians, environmentalists, and others complained to the NGA—a defense agency that is part of the U.S. intelligence community—that these maps and publications are now part of their professional toolkit as well and would be sorely missed. Biologists used them in the mapping of species distribution. Engineering firms used them in construction projects. While too specialized to be missed by the general public, this data contributes to the public well-being.

The list of government records removed from public access during the Bush administration goes on and on, and includes environmental data from Environmental Protection Agency reading rooms, various unclassified records on the safety of chemical and nuclear plants, and other infrastructure data. This purge reverses the "openness initiatives" of the previous administration during which government Web sites emerged by the thousands and nearly a billion pages of historically valuable records were declassified.

The information blackout may serve the short-term interests of the present administration, which is allergic to criticism or even to probing questions. But it is a disservice to the country. Worst of all, the Bush administration's information policies are conditioning Americans to lower their expectations of government accountability and to doubt their own ability to challenge their political leaders.

Information is the oxygen of democracy. Day by day, the Bush administration is cutting off the supply.

Steven Aftergood writes the Federation of American Scientists newsletterSecrecy News.