from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 16
February 28, 2002


The propriety of conducting classified research in academia is once again becoming a subject of controversy on university campuses across the country, with some schools moving to ban such research and others considering relaxing the restrictions that now exist.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has prohibited classified research on campus "to the greatest extent possible" since the late 1960s while permitting such research at its off-campus Lincoln Laboratory. Because classification by definition interferes with free scientific exchange and open publication, it has generally been viewed as incompatible with academic pursuits.

But earlier this month, MIT established a faculty committee to reexamine its current policy on classified research.

"The committee's work is happening at a time of change in laws governing access and disclosure of research materials and information following the September 11 attacks," according to Helen Samuels of the MIT Provost's Office.

See "New committee to look at Institute policies on scientific information access, disclosure," from MIT Tech Talk (2/13/02):

Classified research is currently prohibited at Stanford University, State University of New York, and a number of other campuses.

Duke University recently rejected a government research contract because it would have permitted the Defense Department to block release of research results (as reported in "Universities Review Policies for Onsite Classified Research" by David Malakoff, Science Magazine, 22 February 2002, pp. 1438-9).

Next week the University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF) will consider new steps to restrict classified research, a subject that has prompted intense debate on campus.

According to opponents of the proposed restrictions, it is not classified research that conflicts with academic freedom but rather the efforts to restrict such research.

"If the university chose to forbid classified research, or to put in place constraints that made it impossible to pursue, it would severely infringe on the academic freedom of the faculty," according to UAF electrical engineering professor William Bristow. "Faculty should be free to choose their areas of inquiry so long as they are consistent with the mission of the university, will not endanger the health or safety of the public, and will comply with pertinent regulations."

This is clever, but not quite persuasive since it evades the question of whether the restrictions on access, speech and publication entailed by classification can ever be "consistent with the mission of the university."

The pending University of Alaska motion, authored by Prof. Norman K. Swazo, may be found here:

It will be addressed by the UAF Faculty Senate on March 4.


The Bush Administration was bluntly criticized this week by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly because of its affinity for secrecy generally and its resistance to the General Accounting Office's request for records on the Vice President's Energy Task Force in particular.

"Regardless of the legal veil woven over the energy policy meetings, Cheney's secrecy is a political mistake," Schlafly wrote in a February 25 column for Copley News Service.

"When information is kept secret, the natural inference is that there must be something the administration is very eager to hide."

"The American people do not and should not tolerate government by secrecy. The Freedom of Information Act and many other laws embrace the limited-government principle that 'government by the people' requires government disclosure to the people," wrote Schlafly. "Inexplicably, the Bush administration appears to be taking a contrary approach."

"The Bush Administration's pursuit of secrecy is pushing his party's fate into the hands of the judiciary," she concluded. "It's a high-risk gamble to assume how the courts will rule on executive secrecy issues."

As if to confirm this assessment, a federal court ordered the Energy Department to release 7,500 pages of records related to the Vice President's Energy Task Force, while criticizing the Department's "glacial pace" of responding to requests for the records, which it described as "of extraordinary public interest."

The decision, disclosed yesterday, came in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council. A press release with links to the new ruling is posted here:

The new decision does not immediately affect the unprecedented lawsuit filed last week by the General Accounting Office, which involves a different set of issues concerning GAO access to Vice Presidential records. A copy of the GAO complaint is posted here:


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld officially announced the termination of the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence this week. Rumsfeld cited press reports that it might engage in planting false stories in foreign news media, a notion that he termed "inaccurate." Supporters of the program said that the Office itself had become a victim of disinformation.

"The office has clearly been so damaged that it's pretty clear to me that it could not function effectively," said Rumsfeld on February 26. "So it's being closed down." See:

Following up the controversy over the Pentagon office, writer Jeff Stein profiled the Rendon Group, a peculiar public relations firm that has been involved in Pentagon media operations abroad for over a decade. See "When Things Turn Weird, The Weird Turn Pro" in

The practice of disinformation in recent history, mainly in the context of intelligence operations, was reviewed in "U.S. Planting False Stories a Common Cold War Tactic," by Tabassum Zakaria in Reuters (2/25/02):

Official lying, it can be said dispassionately, remains commonplace today. It is particularly evident in disputes over public access to government information.

So, for example, in order to legally withhold information about the first Cold War intelligence budgets from 1947 and 1948 (currently the subject of some clumsy FOIA litigation), the CIA must assert that disclosure of this information would damage national security.

Although such an assertion is obviously false, particularly given that budget figures from 1997 and 1998 have been declassified, CIA officials have no difficulty uttering the falsehood that permits them to block disclosure.


A collection of newly declassified records on U.S.-China rapprochement during the Nixon Administration has been assembled by the National Security Archive. The collection notably contains documentary evidence concerning U.S. views of Taiwan that contradicts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's published memoirs.

"The Beijing-Washington Back-Channel and Henry Kissinger's Secret Trip to China," edited by William Burr, is available here:

The National Archives is opening another 500 hours of Nixon White House tape recordings today. See:

New releases from the UK Public Records Office this week include a declassified 1964 report on a simulated biological weapons attack in the London Underground. See:

Meanwhile, however, "A government study estimating that about 15,000 Americans died from cancer as a result of Cold War nuclear fallout has been withheld from the public for nearly a year." See "Despite clamor, fallout study still unreleased" by Peter Eisler in USA Today today:


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

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