from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 28
April 2, 2003


Sometimes official secrecy can be quickly overcome simply by calling attention to it, and questioning the need for it.

When a panel of scientists was convened by the Central Intelligence Agency for an unclassified workshop last January to consider the potential terrorist threat that could arise from life science research, they soon reached a consensus that the threat was real and, in fact, quite serious. Yet at the same time, they concluded for a variety of familiar reasons that "openness in scientific research is the only way to go."

On the morning of April 2, however, the workshop participants were informed that the final summary report of the workshop advocating openness would be classified.

This ironic announcement produced a modest rebellion among some of the scientists and by the end of the day on Tuesday, CIA was indicating that "We will definitely look into putting out an unclassified version of the report for workshop attendees."

The whole episode neatly captured the dynamic of a process that normally plays out over a longer period of time.

First, it showed that secrecy is a primal instinct of at least some government agencies. Certainly nondisclosure is the default mode at CIA.

Second, it showed that secrecy makes a poor fit with the deliberative process, particularly when a matter of public policy is involved. Participants want to trumpet their views, receive credit for their contributions, and share their conclusions.

Finally, the dispute demonstrated that change is possible. There is enough plasticity even in the CIA to bring about a shift in policy and practice.

All of this suggests something like the bureaucratic equivalent of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (the biological notion, not strictly correct, that the development of an individual repeats the developmental stages of his species). Bureaucracies typically begin with a strong preference for secrecy but can evolve, under pressure, towards greater openness -- and they do, over and over again. The task at hand is to generate that pressure.

The CIA-sponsored workshop was organized by the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences. It is briefly described, under the caption "Genomics Databases for Bioterrorism Threat Agents: Striking a Balance for Information Sharing," on this page:


It's a sign of the times. There are now more conferences and meetings scheduled to discuss various aspects of government secrecy policy than one would care to attend, even if one were invited.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Academy of Sciences "will convene a series of meetings and related projects over the next two years in which the security and scientific communities, along with leaders of industry, will meet to address ... how to manage the risks of malevolent use of so-called 'sensitive unclassified information' that might enable terrorists to produce and deliver chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; ...."

Two meetings a year will be held by a new "Roundtable on Scientific Communication and National Security." The Roundtable is not to be confused with its twin, the "Commission on Scientific Communication and National Security," that will convene its own gatherings.

See this CSIS announcement:

Meanwhile, "Mounting restrictions on access to government information and the degree to which such secrecy enhances national security" will be examined as part of an April 24-25 conference on "Security, Technology, and Privacy: Shaping a 21st Century Public Information Policy" at Georgetown University Law Center. See:

And "National Security and Open Government" in the U.S. and abroad will be the subject of a May 5 symposium at the Brookings Institution, the culmination of a series of online publications presented here:

Each of these events (and there are several others) involves a slightly different set of participants and is geared to a distinct audience. If nothing else, the proliferation of such meetings shows that a growing number of people are exercised by problems of secrecy and openness.


The Justice Department Office of Information and Privacy continues to perform a public service by compiling and publishing descriptive citations of judicial rulings in Freedom of Information Act cases.

The latest edition, "New FOIA Decisions, January-March 2003," includes a couple of dozen decisions in diverse issue areas. The list is leavened by curiosities such as the individual who filed an appeal 10 years after his request was denied, and another who agreed in advance to pay for search fees but then did not do so. See:


In a decision that takes an expansive view of executive privilege and that is therefore likely to reinforce White House secrecy, a federal court has sided with the Bush Administration and ruled that various records concerning pardons granted by President Bill Clinton are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

"As strong a supporter as the Court is of FOIA's liberal disclosure of government documents and as great as the public interest in disclosure of the documents requested by Plaintiff may be, the case law concerning the ability of the government to withhold certain documents under the presidential communications privilege is clear," wrote Judge Gladys Kessler in a March 28 ruling. The denied records had been sought by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog organization. See the text of the decision here:

The ruling was reported in "White House Request To Restrict Clinton Pardon Data Upheld" by George Lardner, Jr., Washington Post, April 2:


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

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