Homeland Security acts to shield its data

If you work at or for the Homeland Security Department, you're under strict rules to keep data under wraps. The department today issued three regulations that take effect immediately to prevent release of information it deems sensitive.

The department issued the interim final rules without the normal comment period because, as the documents signed by secretary Tom Ridge said, typical notice and comment procedures were 'impracticable, unnecessary and contrary to the public interest.'

The first regulation, dealing with classified national security information, sets up the department's rules for designating information as top secret, secret and confidential. It generally is similar to other agencies' classification rules, according to a notice in The Federal Register.

The second regulation sets procedures for disclosure of official information in connection with legal proceedings. It applies to current and former department employees and to contractors.

The essence of the second regulation is that employees and contractors must resist attempts by courts to obtain information unless the courts have gained the approval of the department's general counsel. If a court were to demand that a particular item be supplied without approval of the department, the regulation requires employees and contractors to decline the request until a Justice or Homeland Security attorney can appear in court.

The third regulation defines the department's powers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 greatly increased the department's authority to withhold information that formerly was available under FOIA.

The department's disclosure policies have raised concerns on Capitol Hill. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) warned during Ridge's nomination hearing that the broadened FOIA exemptions in the Homeland Security Act could allow corporate wrongdoers to shield evidence of their crimes simply by submitting it to the department.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, 'It's one more example of how the creation of the Homeland Security Department extended the government's secrecy. ' Oversight and accountability is critical to the government, and restricting it is shortsighted.'


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