'Sensitive' label strikes nerve

Scientific leaders decry the labeling and withholding of "sensitive but unclassified" information

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.

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.