from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 104
October 21, 2002


The government should sharply limit the classification of scientific and technical information, imposing "high fences around narrow areas," and should "avoid creation of vague and poorly defined categories of 'sensitive but unclassified' information," according to a new statement from the presidents of the National Academies of Science and Engineering.

The information designation "sensitive but unclassified" has become increasingly controversial because of its lack of any precise definition. "Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations," the NAS statement says. "The inevitable effect is to stifle scientific creativity and to weaken national security."

The statement calls for a new dialog between scientists and policymakers in order "to achieve an appropriate balance between scientific openness and restrictions on public information."

"Restrictions are clearly needed to safeguard strategic secrets; but openness also is needed to accelerate the progress of technical knowledge and enhance the nation's understanding of potential threats,"the NAS statement says.

The text of the October 18 statement, as well as a "Background Paper on Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism," are linked from here:

The new statement represents views that are widely shared among scientists and other interested observers.

But it is perhaps less helpful to policymakers than it might be since it does not directly confront the specific disclosure issues officials are grappling with.

For example, an influential January 13, 2002 New York Times story by William J. Broad reported that declassified technical reports that provided details of the production of chemical and biological weapons were publicly available for purchase. The reports were subsequently withdrawn from public access. Should they have remained accessible? Should they have been reclassified (requiring a modification to the current executive order on classification)? Or were they properly "sensitive but unclassified"?

The Academy statement doesn't say. Yet this issue is close to the heart of the matter. According to a cognizant Justice Department official, the March 19 White House memo that reintroduced the question of "sensitive but unclassified" information was "a direct result of the ... New York Times story."

Similarly, there are already over a dozen existing categories of the kind of "sensitive but unclassified" information that the Academy objects to, including several that are written into statute, such as "unclassified controlled nuclear information" (UCNI). Should these be eliminated? Clarified? Consolidated? It remains an open question.


The Bush Administration has adopted a pattern of selective disclosure of classified information that corresponds more closely to its political agenda than to the requirements of national security, according to Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Bob Graham.

"I will say there's been a pattern in which information is provided on a classified basis, and then what is declassified are those sections of the report that are most advantageous to the administration," he said yesterday on the CBS News program Face the Nation.

"And, frankly, there is a piece of information which is still classified which I consider to be the most important information that's come to the attention of the joint committee [investigating September 11]."

"We hope that it will be declassified. I think it is an important part of our judgments as to where our greatest threats are and what steps we need to do to protect the American people here at home."

The full transcript of the October 20 Face the Nation may be found here:


Attorney General John Ashcroft last week asserted the state secrets privilege in a move that will likely lead to dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an FBI whistleblower, who was fired after she reported irregularities in the FBI foreign language translation program.

"To prevent disclosure of certain classified and sensitive national security information, Attorney General Ashcroft today asserted the state secrets privilege in Sibel Edmonds v. Department of Justice," according to an October 18 Justice Department press statement.

The specific nature of the secrets at issue in this case was not immediately evident. But asserting the state secrets privilege is an extreme step that is all but certain to terminate litigation.

"In the past, this privilege has been applied many times to protect our nation's secrets from disclosure, and to require dismissal of cases when other litigation mechanisms would be inadequate. It is an absolute privilege that renders the information unavailable in litigation," according to the Justice Department. See:


The CIA and the Justice Department are making "significant progress" in preparing to oppose a Federation of American Scientists lawsuit seeking disclosure of the fiscal year 2002 intelligence budget total, according to a new "status report" filed in D.C. District Court.

But it "is a time-consuming process, involving review and coordination among a number of affected subject matter and classification experts [including DCI Tenet]. Their involvement is necessary because the aggregate intelligence budget number is classified, and there are major policy issues that must be resolved in deciding whether or not to disclose it," the October 15 status report said. See:

A Washington Post editorial today put the matter more simply: The continuing classification of the intelligence budget is "something Mr. Tenet ought to fix."

The editorial, which reviews the recent hearings on intelligence failures leading up to September 11, may be found here:


The Boeing Company last week disclosed details of its formerly classified Bird of Prey aircraft, a stealth technology demonstrator.

"The once highly classified project ran from 1992 through 1999, and was revealed because the technologies and capabilities developed have become industry standards, and it is no longer necessary to conceal the aircraft's existence."

See an October 18 Boeing release with accompanying images here:


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

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