OMB weighs info classification

Efforts to protect some public data from misuse are generating a mix of reactions

Amid preparations for the Homeland Security Department, the Bush administration is trying to decide the fate of unclassified information that now seems too dangerous to be made freely available to the public because of what terrorists could do with it.

Office of Management and Budget officials have been meeting with scientists, civil libertarians, librarians and others to gather advice on whether to limit public access to information that is "sensitive but unclassified."

Data now considered dangerous could include government research papers on deadly pathogens, highly accurate digital maps or detailed descriptions of toxic chemical storage facilities.

Much of it had been available for years on Web sites, in government libraries and in reports made available by government agencies. But since last September's terrorist attacks, federal officials have worried that some public information is now too public.

Agencies cut off access to thousands of documents on the Internet, ordered certain information in government libraries to be withheld or even destroyed, and simply stopped providing some information that used to be routinely released to the public.

The greatest concern is for safeguarding information that could help terrorists develop or use weapons of mass destruction. Another objective is protecting details of investigations into the terrorist attacks.

Thus, digital maps are no longer available online from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a CD-ROM containing information on the nation's water supplies was ordered destroyed at depository libraries, and tens of thousands of documents vanished from government Web sites.

The information clampdown has touched off a sprawling debate over how much information should be — and legally can be — withheld from the public. The Senate has squared off against the House, federal courts have challenged the Justice Department, and public interest organizations have decried the decisions of numerous federal agencies.

Now OMB is attempting to write "guidance" that could resolve the disputes.

An OMB official, speaking on background, said the agency is trying to write rules that will shield "a small but important set of information" from public disclosure while leaving "the vast majority of government information open and accessible."

Information would be withheld only if it is deemed to be "sensitive homeland security information," the official said.

The official did not describe what information would be sensitive, but said such data "will be protected or made available consistent with existing law and policy, such as under the Freedom of Information Act."

OMB's efforts are generating a mix of hope and fear among individuals and groups the agency is consulting.

Members of OMB Watch, for example, worry that OMB aims to establish a category of sensitive but unclassified information that will make it easier for agencies to avoid public scrutiny. "We're worried that this may become a way of hiding information, not because it puts the public in danger, but because it could be embarrassing to an agency," said Sean Moulton, an OMB Watch senior policy analyst.

"Our position is that it's not necessary to create a new category of information," he said. "The existing categories are more than sufficient to protect information. If it is truly dangerous, agencies can classify it."

On the other hand, if OMB adopts standards requiring agencies to demonstrate why information is sensitive, the amount of information withheld could decrease, Moulton said.

To the American Society for Microbiology, information restrictions threaten to impede scientific progress. For instance, research on deadly pathogens that is withheld to keep it away from terrorists also is unavailable to scientists developing antidotes, said Janet Shoemaker, the society's spokeswoman.

In August, the society urged giving "careful scrutiny" to manuscripts that might inadvertently help terrorists, but stressed that "science has always progressed best when there is open communication."

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists described his encounter in August with OMB officials as "a cordial first round of meetings."

"I'm willing to be persuaded that there are reasons to take stuff off the Web," but to date, the process "has been very ad hoc, without clear standards and liable to abuse and arbitrariness," said Aftergood, who directs the federation's Project on Government Secrecy.

"We want to see more rigor in the process" and clear procedures for appealing agency decisions, Aftergood said. Ideally, rights granted by the Freedom of Information Act won't change, he added.

"We all have an interest in security, but we are all harmed by measures that go too far to restrict information," he said. So far, OMB gives "every indication of wanting to do the right thing."

Earlier attempts by the Bush administration to withhold sensitive data produced a "new climate" based on "a presumption to withhold information," according to the American Library Association.

In a memo last spring, the National Archives and Records Administration instructed agency chiefs to protect "sensitive information related to America's homeland security" even though it "might not meet one or more of the standards for classification."

Agencies then removed thousands of documents from government Web sites and seemed to disregard further instructions from NARA to carefully weigh the effects of withholding information against the benefits of an "open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical and [similar] information," according to the memo.

ALA officials hope OMB's guidance will produce consistency among agencies and not "sweep away disclosure and dissemination over the Internet," said Patrice McDermott of the ALA's Office of Government Relations.

At OMB, the guidance-writing process has just begun, the official said. A draft is expected to be published this fall, and OMB will accept public comments before producing a final version.

***

Defining 'sensitive'

Observers say defining a "sensitive but unclassified" category for protecting information has its pros and cons. For example:

Pro: Requiring agencies to demonstrate why information is sensitive could decrease the amount of information being held.

Con: Providing a new category could give agencies a way to hide embarrassing information from public scrutiny.

NEXT STORY: FAA workers getting pay raise

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.