March 23, 2009
They Can’t Tell You
By last count, the federal government employs 107 different categories of restricted information — one off-limits category zanily pronounces, “sensitive but unclassified.” This muddle of mislabeling seems designed not to protect legitimate secrets but to empower bureaucrats. The end result has been to greatly blunt the Freedom of Information Act’s mandate to let the public in on the business of government, plain and simple.
The House has just approved a measure to end this plague of pseudoclassification. Its backers say it is not just a boon for the public, but an attempt to promote “a common language within government.” There are so many taboos that agencies are even having trouble understanding one another’s rubber-stamp restrictions.
“Official use only” has been slapped wholesale on documents, even though there’s no common standard for what that means. The House measure would correct that by having the national archivist prescribe how and what to classify, with particular emphasis on cutting back categories and ending the pro forma withholding of nonsensitive information requested by the public.
According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Steve Driehaus, Democrat of Ohio, there were 362,000 F.O.I.A. requests last year, and almost a third of them still remain to be processed because of overclassification. The bill requires classifiers to be trained for the task and to put their IDs on what they deem out of bounds, subject to inspector general review.
The Senate now needs to do its part. At a time when Washington is asking so much of its citizens, surely it owes them a chance to understand how policy — for good and ill — is made.