Were three years past 9/11, and the Bush administration is battening down an iron curtain of secrecy around federal government operations. More and more federal agencies are stripping information from their Web sites on grounds it might aid terrorists.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this month that it will no longer inform the public about security at U.S. power plants. The NRC has traditionally withheld details of security problems, but it did issue a quarterly report on the overall status of security at nuclear plants. No longer.
In the post-9/11 environment, we continue to review all information, said Scott Burnell, commission spokesman.
Its the same with other government agencies. Tom Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security, says he is thinking of taking hazardous material signs from trains and trucks because they could help a criminal or a terrorist identify a target. Nevermind that it also would keep the public uninformed when this stuff is moving through their towns and cities.
Steven Aftergood, who monitors secrecy by the government for the American Federation of Scientists, said removing the hazard signs from these shipments is a particularly idiotic idea. Its poorly conceived because it places at risk the lives of millions of Americans, Aftergood said.
Aftergood said the hazardous material signs are on the trains and trucks to alert police and firefighters to take precautions in the event of an accident.
All this secrecy is expensive. A new Secrecy Report Card, released by OpentheGovernment.org, a coalition of watchdog and civil liberties groups, reveals that in fiscal year 2003 the federal government spent more than $6.5 billion securing classified information. Thats an increase of more than $800 million from the previous year, and a nearly $2 billion leap since 2001, the group said. But thats not the whole story; the tally doesnt include a cent from the Central Intelligence Agency, which keeps even its overall budget under wraps.
Some of the rise in expense is understandable in the wake of 9/11 and the greater emphasis on security, but even some of the top experts on government secrecy were surprised at how rapidly classification is rising, and how much it is costing.
I thought the secrecy system would be in the $100 million range, Aftergood said. Being in the billion-dollar rangethats astonishing. This documents in an empirical way what many people have been feeling intuitively: the secrecy system is vast and growing.
OpentheGovernment.org relied mainly on publicly available information for its numbers, including the Department of Justice and the Information Security Oversight Office. William Leonard, director of that office, said the major problem with having so many secrets is that it not only wastes money but is a threat to national security. Leonard said that by keeping informed parties from sharing their knowledge, secrecy guarantees a less-than-optimal outcome. In analyzing intelligence, in developing military plans, theres a price that gets paid.
That opinion is shared by the 9/11 Commission, in its final report, and by several of the Defense Departments former and current spies.
Leonard said some of the numbers in the report card may not be quite correct, but he concurs with its bottom line conclusion that secrecy is excessive, and, yeah, its expensive. He pointed out classification decisions were up about 8 percent last year, to 243,000.
Rep. Christopher Shays, chairman of the national security panel of the House Committee on Government Reform, said thats far too many classified items.
Ive read supposedly classified documents where page after page after page didnt tell me anything I didnt already know, Shays said.
Asked what percentage of government records are being kept from the public, Shays said: I tend to think 90 percent is not an exaggeration. Source: Wired News.com