BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The humiliation practiced upon prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison is documented in a detailed Pentagon report by Major General Antonio M. Taguba. That report, now available in its entirety on such websites as Globalsecurity.org and MSNBC.com, has informed several recent media accounts, most notably one by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine. Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he had not as yet read all the way through it. It seems odd that he lags behind reporters. He had a running start, since the document was classified secret, a fact that troubled at least one Pentagon reporter at a Tuesday press conference. He put the question to General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
REPORTER: Was this kept secret because of -- it would be embarrassing to the world, particularly the Arab world?
PETER PACE: Not-- First of all, I do not know specifically why it was labeled secret. Potentially there, potentially there are parts of the hundreds and hundreds of pages of documentation that are, that are classified. I do not know that to be a fact, but normally would...
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The general didn't know exactly why it was classified, so the reporter tossed the ball to Rumsfeld.
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, can you say why it was classified secret? Do you know?
DONALD RUMSFELD: No. You'd have to ask the classifier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Steven Aftergood is the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, and he's not satisfied with that answer. He joins me now. Welcome back to On the Media.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as you read through the now-infamous report, as have many concerned citizens, excepting, I guess, those up the chain of command at the Pentagon, what point did it dawn on you that the document had probably been improperly classified?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, when you focus on the paragraphs that are marked as secret, what you see very quickly is that these are not conventional national security secrets. They're not the design details of advanced military technologies or the names of confidential sources. What they are, are descriptions of criminal acts of torture, and that kind of information is not what the national security classification system was intended to protect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's absolutely nothing in that document that could endanger American lives or American operations in Iraq?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD:It is not evident. I think one could maybe stretch a little and make an argument that disclosure of this information could interfere with U.S. relations with foreign nations, as indeed it has done. But it is not national security information of the kind that we normally think of as classified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But in your view, it was wrongly classified secret, not just because of what it doesn't contain, but also because of what it does contain.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: That's right. There's a specific provision in the executive order on classification which states: In no case shall information be classified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency." (End of quote.) But if you look at the paragraphs of the Tuguba report that are marked as secret, in many cases they are itemizations of specific crimes that were committed. In other words, they're precisely the kind of thing that the executive order on classification says "Shall in no case be classified."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now, obviously classification keeps things out of the public eye, and if this report and the pictures hadn't been leaked, we wouldn't know about it at all.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: That's right. And as far as anyone knows, the report itself remains classified today. The fact that we have it in our hands is only thanks to what is formally, at least, an unauthorized disclosure of classified information or a leak. I think it underscores the essential role that leaks can play. Leaks help correct excessive secrecy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's often been noted that this administration is making many more secrets now than previous administrations, and even more each year.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: That's right. According to the latest annual report from a government agency called the Information Security Oversight Office, the number of new classification decisions in the last year grew 25 percent over that of the preceding year. It was up from 11 million new secrets to 14 million new secrets. That's a lot of secrecy going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the classification of the Tuguba report was simply the result, then, of an overzealous classifier?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: If I had to guess, I would say it's the error of a classifier who didn't give the matter too much thought, recognized that this subject is sensitive and just reflexively decided to classify it. But I think it's a questionable enough decision that it requires further investigation, and in fact last week we turned to the Information Security Oversight office which has oversight over classification policy and asked then to conduct an investigation into this very question, and the early indications are that they will do so, to try to get to the bottom of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:If the classification were, in fact, a clear violation of federal policy, could you or any other interested party actually sue the government? Are there such suits, and are they successful?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, it is possible to sue the government under the Freedom of Information Act, for example, and to argue that the information that has been withheld is improperly classified. That kind of lawsuit is rarely, if ever, successful. In terms of holding the government accountable, that is something that is probably best done not through litigation, but through congressional oversight and ultimately through elections.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thank you very much.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Steven Aftergood is the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. He spoke to us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.