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March 19, 2002 and After: White House Precipitates Sweeping Restrictions on Government Information

White House chief of staff Andrew Card instructs government agencies to be watchful about safeguarding records that might contain any “information that could be misused to harm the security of our nation and the safety of our people.” Card’s order does not define terms, and agency heads are encouraged to define such cited information as broadly as possible. As a result, many government agencies begin refusing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests under a broadly, and often crudely, applied rubric of “national security.” Card’s order precipitates a cascade of new designations for non-classified information that agencies do not want to release, including “For Official Use Only,” “Sensitive but Unclassified,” “Not for Public Dissemination,” and others. The Congressional Research Service will later estimate that some 50 to 60 new designations are created by various executive agencies to keep information away from the public. In addition, some agencies allow any official or employee, from the agency head to the lowliest clerk, to designate a document as off-limits; all 180,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, for example, can designate a document “For Official Use Only” and thus keep it out of public hands. Reporter and author Charlie Savage will write in 2007: “There is no system for tracking who stamped it, for what reason, and how long it should stay secret. There is no process for appealing a secrecy decision.” Websites containing reams of government information are purged and sometimes shut down entirely. Periodic reports containing information that someone deems sensitive, or perhaps merely embarrassing, are terminated. FOIA requests are routinely stalled. Even such innocuous documents as the Defense Department’s personnel directory, formerly available for sale at the Government Printing Office, is now deemed unsafe for public consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency stops publishing chemical plants’ plans for dealing with disasters, perhaps protecting the public from inquisitive terrorists but certainly easing the pressure on the plants to keep their disaster preparation plans current and effective. The Defense Department stops selling topographic charts, used by, among others, airlines for creating flight charts and biologists for mapping species distribution, for “fear” that “those intending harm” might use the charts to plot attacks on US targets. Even old press releases written specifically for public distribution are retroactively classified. [Andrew Card, 3/19/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 101-103]

Entity Tags: Freedom of Information Act, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Charlie Savage, Environmental Protection Agency, Government Printing Office, US Department of Defense, US Department of Homeland Security, Congressional Research Service

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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