United Press International
July 8, 2004

Pentagon probed on torture memo secrets

The federal government's secrecy watchdog has asked the Pentagon to explain why parts of a memo about the interrogation of terror detainees were classified, even though they discussed the political fall-out if the use of certain techniques became public.

The memo, declassified and released last month, is the report of a working group on interrogation techniques established in January 2003 by the Defense Department's general counsel.

The relevant passage -- marked "secret" prior to declassification -- is part of a discussion of the consequences for criminal and military prosecutions of detainees and others if the public became aware of the use of so-called "coercive interrogation techniques."

It reads: "Consideration must be given to the public's reaction to methods of interrogation that may affect the military commission process. The more coercive the method, the greater the likelihood that the method will be met with significant domestic and international resistance."

"Looking at that paragraph (of the working group report)," said William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which enforces government secrecy policy, "it's difficult to see how that information (could) ... damage national security."

The administration's policy regarding secrecy, laid out in a an executive order signed by President Bush in March last year, says that information can lawfully be classified only if its "unauthorized disclosure ... reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security..."

Leonard said the decision to classify that part of the report was part of disturbing trend, what he called a "bureaucratic impulse," a tendency on the part of officials to "almost reflexively reach out to the classification system."

Lawmakers argue that over-classification is rife in the federal government, and critics of the administration have accused it of abusing classification to hide information that would be merely embarrassing or inconvenient, rather than dangerous.

The working group report is what classification specialists call "part marked," meaning that each paragraph has its own code indicating how secret it is. Several paragraphs in the report are marked "U" for unclassified.

"On its face," Leonard said, the classification of that passage "reflects a disturbing lack of understanding of the constraints and limitations (of) the executive order ..."

Leonard said it was especially disturbing because the working group that drew up the report included some of the most senior lawyers in the Department of Defense.

He said the classification decision was doubly inexplicable because there were several other options available to officials.

"I can well understand that people might not want this kind of pre-decisional deliberative type of information" made public, he said.

But he pointed out that there are other ways to protect such information -- exemptions from the Freedom Of Information Act mean such material does not have to be disclosed to the public, and the claim of executive privilege can be used to protect it from congressional investigators.

"The classification system is designed with one specific purpose in mind," said Leonard, "to protect the nation from its enemies. Every time it is used for any other purpose, it is undermined."

Contacted Wednesday, several defense officials told United Press International they could not comment immediately.

But Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, who campaigns against excessive secrecy in government said that the passage was one of several in the working group report that had only "dubious" claims to be classified.

"That's the most egregious," he said of the passage that drew the attention of the government's watchdog, "because it is so clearly and specifically about the political consequences of the disclosure of government policy."

But he said the document -- and other papers about interrogation techniques recently released by the government -- contained many other examples of secrecy being "used to protect ordinary bureaucratic ruminations on the political consequences of a course of action."

"It's a wholesale abuse of the classification system," he said. "Secrecy authority is being used in a self-serving manner to control public discussion of government policy and that is not acceptable."

FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds said officials in the justice department had used their classification powers to suppress evidence in a lawsuit she brought, and she was not surprised at charges of over-classification.

"Sometimes we would get documents which were marked 'Top Secret' even though they hadn't been translated yet," said Edmonds, who worked as a contract translator in the bureau's Washington field office. "Sometimes they would turn out to be utterly innocuous, but rather than go through the procedures for declassification, (FBI managers) would just leave it.

"It would be stored, processed and handled as top secret."

Such over-classification is a persistent problem in the intelligence community, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., told UPI recently.

"The problem is, it's a ratchet," he said. "It only turns one way. There are very serious consequences for failure to classify sensitive information. There tend to be no adverse consequences -- at least not to someone's career -- of classifying something that doesn't need to be classified."

Leonard told UPI that, generally speaking, it was up to the relevant department -- in this case the Pentagon -- to decide what, if any, disciplinary or re-training action to take against an official who had made an inappropriate classification decision.

"I always prefer that the affected department ... come up with their own plan," he said. "Only someone with knowledge of the circumstances under which the judgment (to classify) was made and with insight into the intent (of the official making it) can really decide on the appropriate corrective action or any sanctions."

Aftergood said that part of the problem was that Leonard's own office faced an impossible task in overseeing the classification process.

He pointed out that 14 million pieces of information were classified last year. "That's about a million for each member of (the Information Security Oversight Office) staff.

"I do not know of any government office which is more responsive to issues raised by members of the public," Aftergood concluded, "but structurally their resources are simply not adequate to the task."

Copyright 2004 United Press International