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Project on Government Oversight

POGO urges Congressional Appropriators to reign in the Department of Homeland Security’s "Sensitive Security Information"(SSI) secrecy category

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July 7, 2006

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Dear Senate and House Appropriations Committees:

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent nonprofit that seeks a more accountable government, urges you to support section 525 of the House version of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (H.R. 5441).  Section 525 reforms the use of Sensitive Security Information (SSI) classification within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  SSI has been abused to cover up both embarrassing information about government activity–particularly at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)–and innocuous information which is widely known.  SSI, as it stands, is an unaccountable secrecy stamp.

The House bill would automatically make information marked SSI releasable after three years, unless it is part of a "current, active transportation security directive or security plan" or the DHS Secretary "makes a written determination that identifies a compelling reason why the information must remain SSI."

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a report (RL33494) last month comparing SSI use at TSA with the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) use of SSI and with security classified information as authorized by Executive Order 12958.  TSA's SSI has fewer controls on its use and less oversight than either classification or USDA's SSI.

In June 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled, Transportation Security Administration: Clear Policies and Oversight Needed for Designation of Sensitive Security Information (GAO-05-677).  TSA has no criteria for "determining what constitutes SSI"; has not identified "responsibilities for officials who can designate SSI"; does not have "adequate internal controls" to monitor use of SSI; and has not developed specialized training for those who wield the SSI stamp.

TSA has used SSI to repeatedly and inappropriately keep information from the public, including information that was already widely available.  In October 2004, the National Security Archive, a DC-based nonprofit that obtains government documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, wrote that the "Transportation Security Administration this week refused to release the texts or even the titles of five aviation warnings given to airlines just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though the titles and substance of the warnings have been published in the best-selling 9/11 Commission report."  TSA claimed that these warnings, called Information Circulars, were SSI.

In June 2004, Judge Charles R. Breyer of the northern district of California ruled that the FBI and TSA improperly made numerous "frivolous claims of exemption" for "innocuous" information, much of which is "common sense and widely known."  For example, "[s]ome of the information redacted" by marking it SSI, "merely recites that the Watch Lists include persons who pose a threat to aviation."

Clearly, Congress needs to reign in use of this easily-abused abusive secrecy stamp to protect not only our right to know, but our safety and security.  The vague or non-existent policies associated with SSI and other "sensitive but unclassified" secrecy categories are not only hampering public knowledge, but "have, in some instances, had the effect of deterring information sharing for homeland security purposes," according to CRS (report # RL33494).

Again, my organization and I urge you to support section 525 of the House version of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (H.R. 5441).  Feel free to contact me or Nick Schwellenbach at (202) 347-1122 if you have any questions or wish to discuss this matter.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director
Project On Government Oversight

cc: Senator Susan M. Collins
Chair
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman
Ranking Member
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

Rep. Peter King
Chairman
House Committee on Homeland Security

Rep. Bennie Thompson
Ranking Member
House Committee on Homeland Security 

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