'Sensitive' label strikes nerve

Presidents from three prestigious government science academies have urged the Bush administration not to declare information "sensitive but unclassified" and withhold it from the public.

During the past year, dozens of federal agencies have adopted informal policies of suppressing information that they think could be helpful to terrorists planning attacks against the United States. And since summer, the Office of Management and Budget has been considering whether to adopt a formal policy for withholding sensitive information.

So far, thousands of documents have been purged from government Web sites and removed from library shelves.

But the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine said such information withholding could "stifle scientific creativity" and weaken, rather than strengthen, national security.

In a statement in mid-October, the three called "sensitive but unclassified" a poorly defined category that would generate deep uncertainties about what can and can't be published.

The presidents -- Bruce Alberts of the National Academy of Sciences, William Wulf of the National Academy of Engineering and Harvey Fineberg of the Institute of Medicine -- agreed that access to some information must be restricted "to safeguard strategic secrets." But they said openness remains essential for scientific progress and to enhance the public's understanding of potential threats.

They urged the Bush administration to stick with a policy the Reagan administration set at the height of the Cold War in 1985 that generally bans restrictions on the conduct or publishing of federally funded research that has not been classified.

The National Academies had its own run-in recently with the Bush administration over publishing sensitive information.

The Agriculture Department "tried to suppress" a National Academies research report on the vulnerability of U.S. agriculture to bioterrorism, said National Academies spokesman Bill Kearney.

Researchers found that harmful foreign pests and pathogens are "widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture" and that the department has failed to plan a defense against a biological attack. USDA officials wanted the unclassified report withheld.

"Their objection was that by saying this we are endangering national security," Kearney said. Even after the National Academies removed details from the report, USDA officials continued to object, leading some at the National Academies to believe the agency really wanted to suppress the report's criticism, he said.

The National Academies published the report anyway. "We want scientists to be enlisted in fight against terrorism," Kearney said. "If secrecy wins the day, you won't get the full cooperation of scientists."

Some unclassified information clearly should not be available to the public, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Blueprints of federal buildings are an example. Some used to be available on government Web sites, and they should not be, he said.

But the National Academies' bioterrorism report shows "there is also a legitimate concern that agencies will use new categories of information to withhold information that should be made public," Schwartz said.

"We are watching very closely" to see what balance the OMB will strike between openness and security, he said.

OMB has been seeking opinions on "sensitive but unclassified," but declined to comment on the National Academies presidents' recommendation.


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