from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 124
December 18, 2002


Unauthorized disclosures of purportedly restricted technical information about Navy laundry machines show that the Department of Defense indiscriminately applies access controls to unclassified information, improperly withholding such information from the public, and that no oversight mechanism is in place to correct the problem.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, the Export Administration Act, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the Defense Department is authorized to designate information as export- controlled "technical data" that is exempt from public disclosure. Anyone who discloses such data is subject to "severe criminal penalties" including fines and imprisonment.

But several documents containing restricted "technical data" have nevertheless been disclosed, and they cast a harsh light on the arbitrariness of Pentagon information policy.

François Boo, a researcher at, spotted an utterly mundane Service Manual for a laundry dryer machine, of all things, on the web site of the Navy Exchange Service Command. Published by the Naval Ships System Command, the cover sheet warns that it contains export-controlled "technical data" and should be destroyed "by any method that will prevent disclosure of contents or reconstruction of the document." See the full document here:

Other manuals containing restricted technical data on "laundry and dry cleaning" and "washer extractors," likewise found by the eagle-eyed M. Boo and also bearing fearsome legal warnings against disclosure, are available here:

One might ask, what difference does it make if Navy washing machine service manuals are withheld from the public (albeit unsuccessfully), particularly if comparable or superior technical information is available elsewhere?

There are at least two answers.

One is that as a matter of principle no government information should be withheld from the public without a legitimate reason, such as national security, personal privacy, or (genuine) export control concerns. That is the nature of an open society.

The other answer is that if Pentagon officials are able to arbitrarily designate benign, unclassified information as restricted "technical data" even when it serves no purpose to do so, then they will not refrain from withholding additional information when it serves their political or institutional interests.

Yet there is apparently no effective system of checks and balances in place to curb excesses or correct violations. This is an especially important defect at a time when the Bush Administration is fleshing out the new information control category "sensitive but unclassified" (also termed "sensitive homeland security information").

"The rules regarding 'technical data' are particularly difficult to understand," according to a 1996 National Academy of Sciences report dealing with cryptography policy ("Cryptography's Role in Securing the Information Society," pp. 159-160).

"In practice, these and other similar issues regarding technical data do not generally pose problems because these laws are for the most part difficult to enforce and in fact are not generally enforced," the report continued.

(Thus, there is little likelihood that the U.S. Navy officials who illegally posted the restricted laundry manuals on the web will be prosecuted, much less sent to jail.)

"Nevertheless, the vagueness and broad nature of the regulations may well put people in jeopardy unknowingly," according to the NAS.


The U.S. Department of State has just published the most recent volume of its official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.

The full text of "Foreign Relations, 1969-1976: Foreign Assistance, International Development, Trade Policies, 1969-1972" is posted here:

U.S. and Russian officials met in Washington last week to discuss a joint historical project to document Soviet-American relations during the years 1969-1976, according to a December 13 press release. See:


The status and direction of DARPA's controversial Total Information Awareness program are critically assessed in a new report from the Center for Public Integrity.

See "Outsourcing Big Brother: Office of Total Information Awareness Relies on Private Sector to Track Americans" by Adam Mayle and Alex Knott:

("If the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Total Information Awareness initiative reminded you of George Orwell's '1984'," wrote David C. Morrison on Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security website yesterday, then "its new Odortype Protection Program [to identify individuals by their scent] might make you think more of 'Animal Farm'." Wish I'd written that.)

Efforts by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to compel DARPA to disgorge information about TIA are described in "Privacy group sues Pentagon for documents on 'total information' project" by Shane Harris, Government Executive Daily Briefing, December 17:


White House moves to privatize the publication of government documents could disrupt regular public access to records, warn librarians and openness advocates.

See "E-Gov Law Sets Up Clash Over White House Outsourcing Plan," by Brian Krebs,, December 17:

Confronted by onerous regulations intended to improve the security of hazardous biological agents, university laboratories around the country are instead destroying their inventories of these substances at an untold cost to scientific research.

See "After 9/11, Universities are Destroying Biological Agents," by Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, December 17:

"Watchdog groups continue attempts to penetrate the inner sanctum of the executive branch using the Freedom of Information Act and other open government laws," writes Vanessa Blum in Legal Times. "Now, more pressure will be put on these suits to wrangle information from a reluctant administration."

See "Secrecy Fights Loom Large in D.C.," December 18:


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

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