'Sensitive' classification still a sensitive issue

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

During the past year, dozens of federal agencies have adopted informal policies of restricting access to information they think could be helpful to terrorists planning future 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.

The presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine said withholding such information could "stifle scientific creativity" and weaken 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 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 not yet 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 secu.rity," 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 department really wanted to suppress the report's criticism, he said.

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

Some unclassified information clearly should not be available to the public, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. A blueprint of a federal building is an example. Some blueprints used to be available on government Web sites, but they should not be, he said.

However, 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.

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