from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 12
February 18, 2002


"Science has now become the leading edge of the [Bush Administration's] crackdown on public access to government information," according to the New York Times.

The Administration has withdrawn from public access over 6,600 technical reports concerning biological and chemical weapons production, the Times reported on February 17. These declassified or unclassified documents are to be reviewed to determine if they contain proliferation-sensitive details that could assist terrorists or others in development of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush Administration is also calling upon scientific societies to impose limits on their scientific publications, the Times reported. The precise nature of the proposed limits, which are still under development, was not disclosed.

See "U.S. Tightening Rules on Keeping Scientific Secrets" by William J. Broad in the February 17 New York Times:

Secrecy is generally understood to be antithetical to sound scientific procedure since it undermines peer review, precludes the replication of experimental results, and prevents the cross-fertilization of ideas that fosters scientific progress.

On the other hand, scientists themselves have employed secrecy when they considered national security to be at stake.

"Contrary to perhaps what is the most common belief about secrecy, secrecy was not started by generals, was not started by security officers, but was started by physicists," wrote Enrico Fermi (with some hyperbole) in 1955, referring to the voluntary effort to withhold experimental data concerning nuclear fission in the late 1930s.

The fact remains, however, that secrecy impedes scientific progress. There is some danger that if the Bush Administration's secrecy policies are brought to bear on scientists as indiscriminately as they are imposed elsewhere, the whole scientific enterprise could suffer as a result, notably including the development of biomedical responses to biological and chemical weapons.

The 1970 report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy presented perhaps the strongest official critique of scientific secrecy. It argued that "more might be gained than lost if our nation were to adopt -- unilaterally, if necessary -- a policy of complete openness in all areas of information."

The Task Force, which was made up of senior defense scientists such as Teller, Seitz, Ruina, Flax, and others, noted the beneficial effects of early declassification in a variety of technologies that proved crucial to national defense and economic security, including microwave electronics and computer technology.

See the Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy, dated July 1970, here:


The Bush Administration's insistent efforts to expand the scope of official secrecy have now been widely noted as a defining characteristic of the Bush presidency, though these efforts are still only beginning to elicit a significant challenge in the form of litigation and mounting public skepticism.
"More than any of its recent predecessors, this administration has a penchant for secrecy," writes David E. Rosenbaum in the February 4 New York Times:

"The Bush team has already established a record on secrecy that makes Richard Nixon, just to take a random example from our presidential past, look like a boy scout," according to Russ Baker in The Nation (February 25):

"Conservatives and liberals have begun to suspect that Bush is not kidding about his bent toward secrecy," wrote Anne E. Kornblut in the February 11 Boston Globe.

"Advocates for open government worry that the clampdown on public information is just beginning," according to William Matthews in Federal Computer Week (February 4):


One of the most alarming political developments in the war on terrorism was President Bush's order establishing military tribunals for suspected foreign terrorists. The November 13 military order was alarming not because military tribunals are in themselves objectionable, but because the President showed shocking disregard for, or ignorance of, the relevant requirements of the United States Constitution.

For example, as Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) noted last week: "In the President's order, there was a provision that there could be no appeal from any order of the military tribunal. But that, on its face, was inconsistent with the Constitution, which preserves the right of habeas corpus unless there is rebellion or invasion, neither of which had occurred here."

In an effort to correct this and other serious defects in the Bush Administration's proposed military tribunals, Senators Leahy and Durbin last week introduced the Military Tribunal Authorization Act of 2002 (S. 1941):

Senators Specter and Durbin introduced the related Military Commission Procedures Act of 2002" (S. 1937):


Writing in 1997, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst foresaw with seeming prescience that an "intelligence failure is inevitable" by the turn of the century.

"Despite our best intentions, the system is sufficiently dysfunctional that intelligence failure is guaranteed," wrote Russ Travers in the unclassified 1997 issue of the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence.

"Failure may be of the traditional variety: we fail to predict the fall of a friendly government; we do not provide sufficient warning of a surprise attack against one of our allies or interests; we are completely surprised by a state-sponsored terrorist attack; or we fail to detect an unexpected country acquiring a weapon of mass destruction," Travers wrote five years ago.

"The Community will try to explain the failure(s) away, and it will legitimately point to extenuating circumstances. But we are going to begin making more and bigger mistakes more often."

Travers' subtle diagnosis emphasizes shortcomings in intelligence analysis as well as an obsolete organizational structure. He prescribes greater reliance on nontraditional sources and nongovernmental expertise, as well as greater consolidation of intelligence functions and responsibilities.

See "The Coming Intelligence Failure" by Russ Travers in the 1997 Studies in Intelligence here:


Leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees announced on February 14 that they will conduct a joint investigation into the attacks of September 11. They announced the appointment of former CIA inspector general L. Britt Snider as staff director.

Ultra-hawk Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy immediately condemned the appointment of Snider, whom he termed "one of [Director of Central Intelligence] Tenet's most trusted subordinates."

"This personnel decision sets the stage for a whitewash of epic proportions," he said.

But Gaffney's complaint was immediately undercut by arch-Tenet foe Senator Richard Shelby, who said he was persuaded that Snider would be "independent." And, in fact, Snider has demonstrated a willingness and an ability to criticize Tenet, and to pose fundamental questions about the future of the Central Intelligence Agency.

See Snider's friendly but probing "Message from the CIA Inspector General" issued in January 2001 upon his retirement:

There is nevertheless a specter of futility haunting the new congressional investigation. It stems from the uniformly disappointing record of prior commissions and investigations.

Thus, the 1996 Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community (the Aspin-Brown-Rudman Commission) manifestly failed to achieve its goal of "Preparing for the 21st Century," as the Commission's final report was entitled.

That Commission's staff director was none other than L. Britt Snider.


While the American public faces new restrictions on access to government information, modest breakthroughs in openness are being achieved elsewhere including, most recently, Bulgaria.

Bulgarian president Georgi Purvanov this month ordered the declassification of minutes of two 1997 sessions of the Bulgarian National Security Consultative Council (NSCC), which concerned the political crisis in the country following mass street protests against the socialist government and the resignation of socialist prime minister Zhan Videnov.

These are the first NSCC minutes ever to be declassified, according to a February 14 report from the BTA news agency in Sofia. They are available on the web (in Bulgarian) here:


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

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