Government Classifies Too Much Information, Congress Must Act, Groups Say


American Association of Law Libraries * American Association of University Professors * American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression * American Civil Liberties Union * American Library Association * Association of American Publishers * Association of Research Libraries * Center for American Progress * Center for Democracy and Technology * Electronic Privacy Information Center * Federation of American Scientists * Feminists for Free Expression * Freedom of Information Center, University of Missouri, School of Journalism * Government Accountability Project * Human Rights First * National Security Archive * OMB Watch * PEN American Center * Project On Government Oversight * Society of Professional Journalists August 4, 2004 The Honorable Porter J. Goss, Chairman The Honorable Jane Harman, Ranking Member House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Re: Reform of the classification system Dear Mr. Chairman and Ms. Vice Chair: We are writing to urge you to take strong steps to curb the overclassification problems that have damaged the credibility of our nation’s secrecy program. We appreciate your public comments in response to recent abuses of the classification system and your effort to promote much-needed change in a long-broken system. We encourage you to consider fundamentally reformulating the classification system to one that presumes only the most necessary of secrets be kept in an open, democratic society. In particular, we urge Congress to establish (1) a classification review board with the statutory power to declassify documents, and (2) a national classification center located at the National Archives and Records Administration to monitor agency classification policy and practices. A healthy classification system keeps necessary secrets out of public view but prevents unnecessary secrets that only undermine public trust and accountability in government. In so doing, it ensures the public is informed to strengthen democracy and make our country and families secure. As you are well aware, federal agencies classify too much information. Recent high-profile events show the need to establish a new classification regime that is more consistent with an open, democratic society. For example: * The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initially attempted to black out roughly half of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on pre-war intelligence about Iraq. Senators Patrick Roberts and John Rockefeller, that committee’s Chair and Vice Chair, respectively, were being gracious in calling it "excessive." Senator Trent Lott went further, calling the CIA’s efforts to keep parts of the report classified "an insult." (Washington Post, 7/13/04) * One 28-page section of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 was kept from the public. At the time, the then-ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, estimated that "95 percent of that information could be declassified" without harming the security of our country. * The government was even able to classify for decades one military officer’s joke in an internal memorandum that terrorists were planning an attack on Santa Claus. * Journalists covering the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal unveiled previously classified documents that showed the military knew about the abuse months before the public. These failures cannot continue. The classification system must change. Recommendations for Change We strongly encourage you to help implement long-overdue reforms that were identified years ago by the congressionally mandated Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy that was chaired by Senator Patrick Moynihan, with the participation of Senator Jesse Helms and a bipartisan panel. The Commission’s unanimous 1997 report comprehensively evaluated the classification system. In particular, we recommend that you push to adopt two of the critical and necessary reforms the Commission identified. * Establish a bipartisan national declassification review board with statutory authority to overrule federal agency classification decisions. This model was used to declassify millions of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and significantly improved public understanding of that fateful event. In cases in which an agency’s classification decision is in dispute, the board would hear appeals of classification decisions by federal agencies and render decisions available to the public. * Establish a national classification center located at the National Archive and Records Administration to coordinate, implement and oversee the declassification policies and practices of the federal government. The center should report to Congress and the president on its activities and on the status of federal agencies’ declassification practices. By instituting these reforms Congress will be building on the recommendations of the 9/11 Congressional Joint Inquiry by promoting an informed public armed with information to protect our families and communities from terrorist and other threats to public health and safety. We are willing and eager to work with you to end the repeated overclassification of information and instituting common sense reforms to ensure adequate transparency and accountability in government. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss solutions to the overclassification problem in the very near future. Please contact Rick Blum, coordinator of OpenTheGovernment.org, at (202) 234-8494 orto discuss the issues raised in this letter. Sincerely, American Association of Law Libraries American Association of University Professors American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression American Civil Liberties Union American Library Association Association of American Publishers Association of Research Libraries Center for American Progress Center for Democracy and Technology Electronic Privacy Information Center Federation of American Scientists Feminists for Free Expression Freedom of Information Center, University of Missouri School of Journalism Government Accountability Project Human Rights First National Security Archive OMB Watch PEN American Center Project On Government Oversight Society of Professional Journalists Cc: Members of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

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