Sensitive Information

The issue of "sensitive information" is not new. Classification is only one of the ways in which the U.S. government controls public access to information. Across the federal government there are many other categories that apply narrowly or broadly to specific types of information.28 Some of the categories are defined in statute, some through regulation, and some only through administrative practices. Different agencies may also assign a variety of civil and even criminal penalties for violation of their restrictions.29

The most extensive restrictions are exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI A), which enable the government to deny public access to particular classes of information.30 The withheld information, considered "For Official Use Only," must be tied to a particular FOIA exemption, for example, to protect individual privacy or proprietary business information. Some of the categories of exemptions are sufficiently general, however, to give federal agencies considerable latitude in withholding information related to internal decision-making.

At a time of heightened concern about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to states or terrorists, many kinds of information can seem potentially relevant to U.S. adversaries and hence targets for expanded controls. For scientists the chief concern in any government-imposed requirement to shield "sensitive" information lies in the potential fuzziness of the category, coupled with the severity of possible

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