Defense Week Daily Update
December 18, 2003
reposted with permission

Pentagon IG Sets New Policy On Web Information

By John M. Donnelly

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18—The Pentagon Office of the Inspector General has issued a new policy that prohibits posting on its Web site broadly defined categories of data.

In a previously unpublicized Dec. 5 memo, Pentagon IG Joseph Schmitz lists five types of information that “will not be available to the general public via the OIG DoD Web site.” These categories include not only “classified” and “for official use only” data but also three more debatable classes of documentation: “information not specifically approved for public release; or information of questionable value to the general public; or information for which worldwide dissemination poses an unacceptable risk to national security or threatens the safety and privacy of the men and women of the armed forces.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has stressed the need to keep private certain information that America’s adversaries might find useful. Authorities, especially in the U.S. military, have been especially keen on keeping unclassified data deemed “sensitive” off the Internet.

But advocates of open government say Schmitz’s memo goes too far and defines categories of protected information that don’t exist in law. In contrast, Schmitz’s spokesman, John Crane, says the restrictions cited in the memo are grounded in Pentagon regulations and that the IG’s intent is to put more records online, not fewer. The memo, though, does not say that.

The IG’s Web site is a rare source of independent insights into Pentagon programs. A crimping of the flow of information on that site arguably could impair the ability of the press and Congress to oversee the Pentagon and its roughly $400 billion annual budget.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, when shown a copy of the memo, said: “I think this is bad news, and I think the policy is very poorly crafted. Unavoidably, it’s going to diminish the amount and quality of investigative material that’s in the public domain.”

“No one would disagree that classified information should not be posted on the IG Web site,” he said. “But the new policy states that nothing should be posted on the Web site unless it has been ‘specifically approved for public release.’

“What they’re basically announcing is a policy of non-disclosure,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. The message it sends to the public is: You’re on your own. And if you’re concerned about access to public information, you better find your own sources, because the IG is not going to help.”

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the memo is not consistent with 1996 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which set the terms under which agencies must publish electronic information.

““Essentially, they [the IG officials] say they’re going to post stuff on the Web site--unless they decide they don’t want to. … That’s not what the law says,” Dalglish said.

“You wouldn’t expect classified information to be posted, and you wouldn’t expect ‘for-official-use-only’ information to be posted, but who’s going to be making the decision on what’s ‘information of questionable value to the general public’ for God’s sake?” she said. “This is just nuts.”

The 1996 changes to the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, require public disclosure of frequently requested records, a category that might include IG audits. FOIA allows agencies to withhold certain kinds of information, including “predecisional” data, such as documents detailing government deliberations about still undecided policies. But the Schmitz memo is not that precise and does not cite the law.

“If [the information in question] qualifies for an exemption under FOIA, then it qualifies for an exemption,” Dalglish said. “But to say [the IG can withhold] ‘information of questionable value to the general public?’ That is about the biggest red flag I’ve seen posted on any type of memorandum coming out of this administration regarding FOIA.”

Crane, who is the IG’s director of communications and congressional liaison, said the memo “is an effort to consolidate and highlight information contained in the DoD principles of information and an existing Inspector General instruction to encourage greater use by Inspector General components of the Inspector General Internet Web site as a vehicle to inform the public regarding Inspector General activities. The memo posted on the DoD IG internet site is part of a policy of transparency that defines the criteria used regarding the posting of information for the public.”

It remains to be seen how much the new policy actually will affect the content of the IG’s site, Ironically, the IG’s Dec. 5 memo was posted on the site.

Copyright 2003 King Publishing