March 26, 2003 12:11 PM PST

Bush order covers Internet secrets

President Bush has signed an executive order that explicitly gives the government the power to classify information about critical infrastructures such as the Internet.

Bush late Tuesday changed the definition of what the government may classify as confidential, secret and top-secret to include details about "infrastructures" and weapons of mass destruction. The new executive order also makes clear that information related to "defense against transnational terrorism" is classifiable.

In his executive order, which replaces a 1995 directive signed by President Bill Clinton, Bush said that information that already had been declassified and released to the public could be reclassified by a federal agency. Clinton's order said that "information may not be reclassified after it has been declassified and released to the public."

David Sobel, general counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said it was unclear why the Bush administration decided to include the term infrastructure. An existing category of scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security might have covered information about the Internet and other critical infrastructures, Sobel said.

"It's a mystery to me why there was a feeling that the old order needed to be revised and expanded," Sobel said.

The definition of what may be properly classified typically becomes an issue when a lawsuit is filed under the Freedom of Information Act seeking to force the government to divulge documents that it claims are secret and properly classified. Bush's decision gives the U.S. Justice Department, which defends agency classification decisions in court, more leeway in fighting such lawsuits.

Clinton's 1995 order said one of the seven categories of information that could be classified was: "vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, projects or plans relating to the national security."

Under Bush's order, that definition has been expanded to: "vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects, plans or protection services relating to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism."

Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists who tracks government secrecy, says the change in definitions "creates an opening that could be exploited in the future, but in practice the previous policy would have permitted much of the same thing."

 

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