WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is coming under fire for allegedly allowing political concerns to determine what it deems to be sensitive national security material after a series of document declassifications that critics contend were timed for strategic advantage.
In several recent cases, the administration first refused requests for information by saying that releasing it would jeopardize national security, then released that same information itself at a moment when it became politically convenient to do so -- leaving the impression that it was safe to release all along.
After first refusing to allow Congress to see a memo about Al Qaeda from a month before the 2001 attacks, and then letting only some of the 9/11 Commission see it in private, the White House released the entire document to quell rising public pressure. After the Justice Department fought the American Civil Liberties Union in court to suppress statistics on how often it used the Patriot Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft called a news conference and announced them.
Last week, President Bush himself rebuked Ashcroft for declassifying Justice Department memos from the Clinton era showing deliberations involving Jamie Gorelick, the number two Justice official under Clinton who is now a member of the 9/11 Commission, over how the CIA and FBI could share terrorism information.
Concern over the integrity of the national security secrecy system comes as a new oversight report has revealed a surge in secrecy: the US government classified 14 million new national-security secrets last year, up from 11 million in the previous year and 8 million the year before.
Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive project at George Washington University, said the rising wave of national-security classifications, coupled with disclosures of formerly secret information that "doesn't pass the guffaw test," jeopardizes the protection of legitimate secrets, such as the names of covert operatives or the designs of weapons systems.
"If people inside the system see dubious secrets being placed into the security system or see strategic declassifications being done for purely political reasons, they are less likely to be bound by their own oaths," he said. "It undermines the credibility of the system from both the inside and the outside. To the extent that we are all American citizens and agree that there are real secrets that need to be protected, then this is bad. This is damaging to our national security."
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. But Brad Berenson, a former associate White House counsel in the Bush administration, rejected the criticism as "unfair" and "incredibly ironic" because President Bush has been hit just as hard by accusations that he is overly secretive and does not disclose enough information.
He also said the disclosures have followed "political pressure" on the White House by Congress, the 9/11 Commission, victims' family groups, and the public.
"To call this strategic or political, I think, is unfair," he said. "It's not as though the administration is proactively seeking to seed the market with information helpful to it. It's that the administration is being forced by political pressure to reveal or disclose things that, left to its own devices, I'm sure it would rather not."
The process of classifying and declassifying documents is controlled by two executive orders, one issued by President Clinton and a second by Bush that modifies the Clinton order. The orders allow certain officials in the executive branch to classify documents if disclosing them to an unauthorized person could damage national security. Typically the agency that originally classified a document is the one that must sign off on an effort to declassify it.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the American Federation of Scientists, said what it means to "damage" national security is ill-defined. Standards vary from office to office, creating a level of subjectivity that has opened the system to abuse, he said.
Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the national ACLU, said the administration has abused the shield of "national security" to quash several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in the post-Sept. 11 era, such as its use of the Patriot Act's controversial Section 215, which allows for the secret seizure of business records.
In October 2003, several months after the Justice Department won a court order dismissing an ACLU lawsuit on the grounds that revealing information about Section 215 would jeopardize national security, Ashcroft called a news conference to announce that the power had never been used. The announcement helped kick off Ashcroft's campaign to persuade the public that the Patriot Act was a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism and not a threat to civil liberties.
Beeson is working on another Patriot Act-related case. The Justice Department refused to allow even the fact of the lawsuit to be disclosed, citing national security concerns, and then only last week allowed the ACLU to release a heavily redacted copy of its legal complaint.
Beeson contends that there was very little in the pages of blacked-out information that appears to have any impact on national security and that the administration is simply hiding the facts to avoid public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, in Idaho, the Justice Department is prosecuting a Saudi graduate student in computer science named Sami Omar Al-Hussayen who is accused of running websites for Islamic groups advocating holy war in Israel and Chechnya, among other places, and of transferring money to a charity suspected of terrorist ties.
While preparing for the trial, Hussayen's lawyers repeatedly asked for access to documents from the government's surveillance of their client, but the Justice Department fought that release on national security grounds. Three days before the trial, however, the government abruptly decided to declassify about 30,000 intercepted Arabic-language phone calls and e-mail messages it is using as evidence in the case, raising questions about whether the delay was for security reasons or an attempt to prevent the defense from having sufficient time to review the documents.
Bob McNamara Jr., a former CIA general counsel, said a delay in declassifying documents does not necessarily mean they were safe to be released all along. He said national security interests are shifting, and something may have changed.
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