HHS Secretary Given Power to Classify Information
Recognizing HHS' role in fighting bioterrorism, President Bush has granted the secretary of the agency the authority to classify information as secret, the New York Times reports. The president's designation of the new authority was printed in the Federal Register on Dec. 12 without comment from the administration. A White House official said, "[HHS] clearly [is] a homeland security agency. One of the things you do in the homeland security business is deal with classified information." HHS spokesperson William Pierce said that he expected a "narrow subset" of documents to become classified, mainly those related to bioterrorism and the nation's preparedness for a biological attack. Officials said vaccine storage sites and details about emergency medical stocks were examples of information that might be classified. Pierce said that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson has not yet classified any information. Before the designation, HHS had to ask other agencies to classify information on its behalf. The Times reports that before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "it had not been widely assumed that [HHS] needed such authority." Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chair of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations, said the new authority was needed to "make sure we don't provide a road map to terrorists" of the nation's vulnerabilities to a biological attack. But he added that HHS should use the power "judiciously" (Mitchell, New York Times, 12/20).