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Homeland Secrecy

Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A26

THE GOVERNMENT keeps too many secrets. It classifies information that would do no harm if published; this impedes information-sharing within the government and erodes public confidence. Now the Department of Homeland Security is adding a new twist: aggressive secrecy concerning information that isn't even classified.

In recent months, the department has been requiring new employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding "sensitive but unclassified" information they learn at work. Signers must acknowledge that they "could be subject to administrative, disciplinary, civil or criminal action" for violations and that the government may "conduct inspections, at any time or place, for the purpose of ensuring compliance." In other words, as a condition of their employment, DHS workers have to accept a gag agreement and permit potentially intrusive searches as well.

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Labor unions have understandably complained, and a DHS official says the agreements are being reviewed. This official explains that the agreements merely duplicate regulations that already protect certain categories of information; they don't actually do much at all, he says, and may therefore not be necessary. It's true they're not necessary, but anti-secrecy activist Steven Aftergood disputes the contention that they would have little effect. He says they could chill whistle-blowing and more basic discussion between government employees and the outside world. Mr. Aftergood notes that the military doesn't require its employees to sign such documents. DHS shouldn't either.

The department is also is keeping secret Transportation Security Administration rules, known as "security directives," that guide who can get on an airplane. Not all criteria for airport screening should be public; they could give terrorists a road map for sneaking through. But there's no need for the entirety of all such directives to be secret. For basic legal authorities -- the rules that define Americans' interactions with government -- to be kept under wraps presents a challenge to the U.S. tradition of transparency in law. The department needs to remember that the homeland whose security it is protecting is one in which democratic debate is supposed to be open and freewheeling.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company