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Hearing spotlights government ‘secrets’

WASHINGTON -- A former dictator's cocktail preferences and a facetious plot against Santa Claus were classified by the government to prevent public disclosure.

Also stamped ''secret" for six years was a study that concluded 40 percent of Army chemical warfare masks leaked.

These and other ludicrous and lethal examples of classification were cited Tuesday by members of Congress and witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing into the Sept. 11 commission's conclusion that secrecy is undermining efforts to thwart terrorists.

Some classifications were made in error or to save face.

The CIA deleted the amount Iraqi agents paid for aluminum tubes from page 96 of a Senate report on prewar intelligence. The report quoted the CIA as concluding: ''Their willingness to pay such costs suggests the tubes are intended for a special project of national interest."

That price turned out to be not so high. On page 105 of the same Senate report, the security reviewers let CIA's figure -- up to $17.50 each -- be printed twice, along with other estimates that the Iraqis paid as little as $10 apiece.

''There are too many secrets" and maybe too many secret-makers," said Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut and chairman of the Government Reform Committee's national security panel. There are 3,978 officials who can stamp a document ''top secret," ''secret," or ''confidential" under multiple sets of complex rules.

No one knows how much is classified, he said, and the system ''often does not distinguish between the critically important and comically irrelevant."

The problem is growing, said J. William Leonard, director of the Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors federal practices. Officials classified documents 8 percent more often in 2003 than in 2002.

''The tone is set at the top," Shays said.

''This administration believes the less known the better," said Shays, noting that he was speaking of a GOP administration. ''I believe the more known the better."

The panel's ranking Democrat, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, noted that President Clinton directed that in cases of doubt, the lowest or no classification be used.

But in 2003, President Bush ordered officials to use the more restrictive level.

Steven Aftergood, director of a Federation of American Scientists project on secrecy, said some classification clearly aimed to conceal illegality or avoid embarrassment, even though that is forbidden.

Aftergood cited the ''secret" stamp on Army Major General Antonio Taguba's report of ''numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" inflicted on Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.

Carol A. Haave, deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, said most misclassification was unintentional, resulting from misunderstanding or failure to declassify no-longer-sensitive data.

She said a weakness, particularly for antiterrorism efforts, was that those who collect intelligence determine its classification.

''Collectors of information can never know how it could best be used," Haave said. ''We have to move to a user-driven environment."

Leonard said another obstacle to sharing antiterrorist data as the Sept. 11 commission envisioned was that federal law divides the authority for writing the rules that govern secrets.

The CIA director has authority to protect intelligence sources and methods; the Energy Department has power to write regulations to shield nuclear secrets; the Pentagon has control over classifying NATO data; and the National Security Agency can define communications eavesdropping secrets.

''All these variations have nuances that impede cooperation," Leonard said.

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