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The Costs of Secrecy

Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A16

"THE PRESUMPTION ought to be that citizens ought to know as much as possible about decision making," President Bush told the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors last week when asked about his administration's tight controls on information. "I know there is a feeling that we are too security-conscious. I think we are becoming balanced."

The assumption underlying this remark is that secrecy and security go hand in hand and that openness in government carries risks. This is certainly often true; yet what's less recognized is that secrecy can be harmful, not only to democratic values but to national security as well, because it can impede the flow of information to those who need it. Recently the National Academy of Sciences, as part of a report on the security of spent fuel at nuclear plants, provided an example, noting that "security restrictions on sharing of information and analyses are hindering progress in addressing potential vulnerabilities."

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The body of this report is a sober assessment of the threat to nuclear facilities and an analysis of how security for their highly dangerous waste products can be improved. The last chapter, however, details how tight controls on information are inhibiting security improvements. Representatives of the nuclear industry, the blue-ribbon panel noted, have been frustrated by a lack of information available from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has not been sharing data that could help with "early actions to address identified vulnerabilities." In two instances the report cites, restrictions on information prevented studies from being shared among analysts for different organizations examining related questions. The panel itself "was unable to examine several important issues" related to the security of spent fuel, in part "because it was unable to obtain needed information from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Nuclear regulators are hardly unusual in hoarding information so closely that they undermine the very security they seek to enhance. This is, rather, a norm in government. A federal court in Washington recently ordered the CIA to disclose budget data from as far back as 1963; the agency has, generally speaking, successfully resisted releasing such absurdly remote historical data, and it fought over the 1963 figures even after it turned out to have already made the information public. It is hardly a surprise that a government that cannot distinguish such matters from real state secrets -- that is classifying more and more every year, and spending billions to do it -- also cannot figure out what information must be shielded from the companies on the front lines of nuclear security and what information should be given to them. Somehow, a more rational approach to secrecy must take hold.

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