Striking a blow to the free communication of information and ideas, government over-classification of documents has reached historic levels over the last four and a half years, says a study put out by the Coalition for Open Government, Washington. According to the report, the government classified some 14 million documents in one year, an increase of 60 percent from 2001-2003 at a cost of $6.5 billion to taxpayers.
The study may be indicative of a larger crackdown on public information.
News coverage in the post 9/11 world is dictated by the question of how much the public truly needs to know – not what they want to know, or might find interesting, said New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau ’87 in a speech last night at McGraw 165.
But more than an increase in the quantity of items classified, there has been a tremendous increase in the type of items classified.
Lichtblau cited government directives toward college librarians to destroy CDs containing information about national reservoirs and dams as an example of the swath of material no longer considered appropriate for public consumption.
“To a librarian charged with the free flow of information, this was nothing short of anathema,” he said.
Government websites with information about nuclear reactors and hazardous waste sites have been taken down, denying taxpayers once common information about the features of the nearby regions.
The travel patterns and spending habits of our government’s leaders were once readily available, but now must now be formally requested under the Freedom of Information Act and are routinely rejected, Lichtblau said.
Public reading rooms in some federal agencies now require appointments and government escorts to make sure materials are not being misused.
The justification for such limitations has been tied to issues of national security.
As former Attorney General John Ashcroft put it, “information is the enemy of corruption – corruption feeds on secrecy and ignorance.”
Enemies of the United States may be taking advantage of our nation’s free press.
Just one day after President Bush commented in The Washington Post that the U.S.’ ability to track Osama Bin Laden relied on his satellite phone, Bin Laden stopped using the device.
Hitting closer to home for Lichtblau, a copy of a story the reporter had written about how easy it was for undercover agents to gain access to supposedly secure departments in the federal government was found translated into Arabic in an Al Qaeda terror den.
But while Lichtblau feels that “the fear of compromising national security is a real one,” he recognizes irrational limitations in the attitude that the United States cannot risk publicizing anything that could possibly help the enemy.
“By that standard,” he said, “Pentagon reporters will tell you that you might think twice about publishing weather reports in Baghdad because they could conceivably help insurgents plan their attacks.”
Archived article by Erica Fink
Sun Editor in Chief