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'Secrets' Perplex Panel

Classified Data Growing to Include 'Comically Irrelevant'

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page A17

A former dictator's cocktail preferences and a facetious plot against Santa Claus were classified by the government to prevent public disclosure.

Also stamped "secret" for six years was a study concluding that 40 percent of Army chemical warfare masks leaked.

These, as well as other examples of classification were cited last week by members of Congress and witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing into the Sept. 11 commission's conclusion that secrecy is undermining efforts to thwart terrorists.

Some classifications were made in error or to save face.

The CIA deleted the amount Iraqi agents paid for aluminum tubes from Page 96 of a Senate report on prewar intelligence. The report quoted the CIA as concluding that "their willingness to pay such costs suggests the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest."

That price turned out to be not so high. On Page 105 of the same Senate report, the same security reviewers let the CIA's figure -- as much as $17.50 each -- be printed along with other estimates that the Iraqis paid as little as $10 apiece.

"There are too many secrets" and maybe too many secret-makers, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security panel.

There are 3,978 officials who can stamp a document "top secret," "secret" or "confidential" under multiple sets of complex rules.

No one knows how much is classified, he said, and the system "often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant."

The problem is growing, said J. William Leonard, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors federal practices. Officials decided to classify documents 8 percent more often in 2003 than in 2002. Total classification decisions -- including upgrading or downgrading -- reached 14 million.

"The tone is set at the top," Shays said.

"This administration believes the less known, the better," added the Connecticut Republican, noting sadly he was speaking of a GOP administration. "I believe the more known, the better."

The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, noted that former President Bill Clinton directed that in cases of doubt, the lowest or no classification be used. But in 2003, President Bush ordered officials to use the more restrictive level.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on secrecy, said some classification was designed to conceal illegality or avoid embarrassment, even though that is forbidden.

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