WASHINGTON -- Terrorists could be lurking in some American town but the local sheriff or fire chief might be left in the dark about the threat because he can't easily access information classified by the Feds in Washington.
That scenario could change under legislation passed by the House Tuesday to reduce over-classification of threat information.
"Classifying information for the wrong reasons -- to protect turf or to avoid embarrassment -- is wrong," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., sponsor of the bill that passed on a voice vote. She said that in her eight years on the House Intelligence committee, "I become incredibly frustrated with this practice -- which the Bush administration elevated to an art form."
The legislation would require the Homeland Security Department to produce a declassified version of threat information for state and local first responders who don't have the security clearance to view classified material.
The measure would also require portion marking, where certain classified parts of a document might be blacked out but the rest of the information would remain unclassified.
The bill was one of several Homeland Security-related bills the House was considering Tuesday.
- A bill introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., would direct the department to set up a redress process for people who believe they were delayed or barred from boarding a commercial aircraft or inhibited in receiving another government service because their names were mistakenly put of terrorist watchlists. People could voluntarily submit their names to a "cleared list" that prevents future problems.
- A bill sponsored by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., would set up an office of bombing prevention in the department. The new office would coordinate with state and local agencies in training and developing technology to detect and prevent terrorist attacks using improvised explosive devices and other roadside bombs.
All three bills passed the House in the last session of Congress but were not taken up by the Senate.
There have been numerous initiatives since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve information sharing between federal and local officials, with mixed results.
These efforts, former U.S. attorney and current professor at Seattle University School of Law John McKay said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last fall, "have cost a lot of money, put lots of people to work, put new technologies into the public service and given agency officials political cover with the illusion of progress." But he said they "have not produced meaningful information sharing and have had virtually no operational impact."
Committee chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., at the same hearing, cited a recent survey conducted by the National Governor's Association that found that half of state and local homeland security advisers described intelligence they receive from federal agencies as "unhelpful."
Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the Harman bill sends an important message that classification should not be a barrier to keeping local officials informed about threats.
But he said the bill does not cover the CIA or the Pentagon, the biggest sources of classified data. "This is not the systemic change that we need but it is an urgent part of the larger problem and I hope it will elevate classification reform in the administration agenda."
Overclassification is a bureaucratic impulse and some polices in the past several years have been an outright abuse of classification, said Bill Leonard, a former director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives.
That office recently reviewed more than 1,000 government documents and concluded that one in four may have been inappropriately classified.