from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
November 28, 2001


Classification activity in the executive branch "increased dramatically" last year, according to a new report to the President from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). At the same time, declassification activity dropped by 42 percent.

The nearly 200% increase in classification decisions in fiscal year 2000 was not attributable to any new classified programs, ISOO said. Rather, "the primary factor responsible for this dramatic increase ... is the burgeoning electronic environment" which facilitates the multiplication of classified materials. ISOO said the methodology for assessing classification needed to be updated.

The total annual estimated cost of protecting classified information in government and industry was $5.2 billion, an increase of $200 million.

Despite a significant drop in declassification, a considerable 75 million pages were declassified in FY 2000. A mammoth combined total of nearly 795 million pages have now been declassified since President Clinton's executive order 12958 took effect in October 1995.

"The ability of the executive branch to protect information in our national security interest has been enhanced by the massive reduction in the number of documents that are no longer sensitive but remained unnecessarily classified," the ISOO report stated boldly.

The ISOO report, the last to be produced during the tenure of retiring Director Steven Garfinkel, is a remarkable bureaucratic artifact that provides much food for thought.

It notes some minor triumphs: The CIA declassified 5 million pages in 2000, a small figure that is nonetheless a record high for the Agency. It reports some outrages: "Declassification and public access have been slowed by legislation that, in ISOO's view, amounted to ... overkill." And it provides some weird factoids: The Treasury Department, accelerating to ludicrous speed, increased declassification activity by 9,721%.

The ISOO Annual Report for FY 2000 was transmitted to the White House on September 17, 2001 and publicly released yesterday. The text of the Report is posted here:


Scientific and technical information relating to biological weapons is now raising vexing security issues, prompting scientists themselves to question the proper limits of secrecy and disclosure in this sensitive field.

"It will come as no surprise to you to learn that there is growing concern within Government circles that certain types of data generated by the life sciences research community may be more than helpful to our enemies," said George Poste, who chairs the Department of Defense task force on bioterrorism. "There are, of course, no easy solutions to this problem."

In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ronald M. Atlas of the American Society for Microbiology explained the dilemma:

"Implementation of restrictive controls to impede access to biological agents is inherently difficult and potentially could also deter the critical research and diagnostic activities to combat terrorism. Much of the material and equipment is in widespread use and commercially and internationally available; dangerous pathogens are naturally occurring; and, the research and technology knowledge base relevant to biological weapons is publicly available." See Atlas' testimony here:

On the other hand, some of the technologies on the horizon, or just over it, are so apocalyptically dangerous that every effort should be made to limit their dissemination.

But no matter how complex the problem, Congress has one all-purpose solution: amend the Freedom of Information Act!

Rushing in where wise men fear to tread, the House of Representatives adopted the "Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001" on October 23 to prevent disclosure under FOIA of certain biological research data. The bill (HR 3160), which to date has no equivalent in the Senate, may be found here:

These kinds of restrictions on information are the wrong way to go, according to some arms control advocates. "Instead of promoting secrecy on biological weapons research, to restore international confidence in biological weapons control, the US should be moving in the opposite direction to promote high transparency," declared the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group.

See the Project's "Seven Good Reasons to Stand Up for Information Freedom on Bioweapons Research":

A related November 27 New York Times story, "Scientists Ponder Limits on Access to Germ Research," may be found here:


In anticipation of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Attorney General John Ashcroft released new details concerning some of the individuals detained in the aftermath of September 11, but stopped short of providing a full accounting of their status.

"When the United States is at war, I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies," he said. The transcript of the Attorney General's November 27 briefing is available here:

The controversial order issued by President Bush on November 13 establishing military tribunals for certain suspected terrorists is commonly referred to as an "executive order" but strictly speaking it is not.

The new order was specifically promulgated as a "military order" (MO) rather than as part of the formal series of "executive orders" (EOs). EOs are numbered, take effect upon publication in the Federal Register and are compiled in Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations. MOs, which are unnumbered, take effect upon issuance and rest upon the President's authority as Commander in Chief.

According to information policy expert Harold Relyea of the Congressional Research Service, there were twelve Military Orders issued between 1939-48 by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Somehow we survived the cold war without them.

"Is President Bush's Executive Order Creating Military Tribunals Legal?" That question was examined by Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate Magazine, here:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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