NEW ORLEANS -- There's a "total meltdown" in America's intelligence services -- and the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy is one of the major reasons why, current and former top U.S. spooks charged Tuesday.

George W. Bush's White House has pushed like few before it to put government information out of the public's grasp. Moves to classify documents are up 400 percent from a decade ago, to more than 23 million such actions in 2002, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, a division of the National Archives.

But despite their cloak-and-dagger reputation, several of the country's leading spies, past and present, aren't happy about the rush to make things secret. To counter far-reaching, stealthy terrorist cabals, the country needs more openness, not less, they said Wednesday at Geo-Intel 2003, a first-of-its-kind conference here on the use of satellites in war, intelligence and homeland security.

"Our secrecy system is all about protecting secrecy officers, and has nothing to do with protecting secrets. It's a self-licking ice- cream cone," said Rich Haver, until recently Donald Rumsfeld's special assistant for intelligence, now with Northrop Grumman. "We're compartmentalizing the [censored] out of things. It's causing a total meltdown of our intelligence processes."

Case in point: The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, prepared a report last year for firefighters and other so-called "first responders" on how to react to a chemical weapons attack. But when the paper was completed, the Defense Department classified it, CSIS analyst Jim Lewis noted. Now, the firefighters will never get the benefit of that information.

In July, a George Mason University graduate student mapped out in his dissertation (registration required) the details of the country's fiber optic network. Using information publicly available online, he spotted vulnerable spots where terrorists might strike. The paper could have been used to shore up weak links in the country's infrastructure. Instead, the government immediately suppressed it.

"He should turn it in to his professor, get his grade -- and then they both should burn it," former White House cyberterror czar Richard Clarke told The Washington Post.

That kind of approach is all wrong, Thomas Behling, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, told a group of nearly 1,400 spooks, geeks and defense contractors gathered in a ballroom at the New Orleans Marriott, on the edge of the French Quarter.

"Rather than putting data into separate partitions, where only a few people have access to it," he noted, authorities need to make information available "by job" to whoever needs it -- regardless of their security clearance.

"We have to change the way we classify information," added Jim Caverly, who heads the Homeland Security Department's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection division. The old system may have "worked against the Soviet Union." But, today, the federal government "needs to make information available to law enforcement, to EMTs and to the security staff guarding the power plant."

There have been some improvements -- some -- in sharing data, satellite imagery in particular. That's partially driven by the spread of such eyes in the sky.

"Pictures that only nation-states used to have are now commercially available with a credit card," Lt. Gen. Thomas Goslin, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said. "So the rules (of classification) need to be reviewed."

"A forum like this one couldn't have happened in the open just a few years ago," Haver agreed. "But our enemies now know the ways we take pictures of them and their operations."

After the first Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf complained that his troops in Iraq and Kuwait couldn't see the eye-in-the-sky pictures that the spooks could. By the time Gulf War II came around, that had changed.

"Now, forces in the field can access at a secret level instead of at this compartmented, code-word level. They're not limited to intelligence clearances," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

But these small steps forward have been accompanied by some giant steps backward, he added. For example, 4,000 officials -- including the secretaries of the departments of agriculture and health and human services -- now have the authority to make material classified. Reams of documents have been labeled "sensitive but unclassified," and are now hidden from public view.

"This administration has repeatedly demonstrated a predilection for secrecy. Withholding information is the default. Disclosure is like pulling teeth. They see little room or need for public oversight," Aftergood said.

"People might imagine the classification serves the interest of the government," he continued. "But it's molasses in the gears of the policy process."

Military and intelligence officials repeat again and again at affairs like these that they're trying to move away from their old hierarchies and toward a structure in which every soldier, every drone and every general is connected by computer networks. Needless secrecy hurts, not helps, this effort.

"Any attempt to control the flow of information impedes the whole," Aftergood said. "It's the difference between a top-down command structure and a network."

source: wired

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