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Army backs down on classified data threat

The U.S. Army apologizes for threatening to prosecute an open-government advocacy group after it republishes a document copied from a military Web site.

The U.S. Army has apologized for threatening to prosecute an open-government advocacy group after it republished a document copied from a military Web site.

An official with the U.S. Army Services and Operations Agency on Wednesday accused the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) of publishing a secret government document about acquiring military hardware--before backing down a few hours later.

"Reproducing a secret publication on a public Web site is a serious issue with federal criminal implications," Thomas Harman, chief of the Army's electronic library branch, had written in an e-mail message to FAS.

After an official in the Secretary of the Army's office raised questions about whether the document was in fact classified, Harman said he had made a mistake. A later version of the regulation, AR 381-26, was the classified document, Harman said in a follow-up e-mail message.

In a telephone conversation with CNET News.com on Thursday, Harman acknowledged the error. "I'm sending (FAS) an apology right now for how that went down," he said. "We finally got a legal clarification yesterday that I think will keep me and other people like me from reacting the way we did yesterday on security issues."

Steven Aftergood, head of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, said the e-mail messages appeared to be part of the Pentagon's growing efforts to delete unclassified documents from the Web. "Increasingly all this material is being removed from the public domain," said Aftergood, whose organization maintains an online library of unclassified government documents.

The AR 381-26 regulation deals with the acquisition of foreign military hardware, a key function of U.S. military intelligence.

In January 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in a directive distributed through the military that too much unclassified but worrisome material was popping up on the Web, and warned that al-Qaida and other foes were sure to take advantage of it.

"At the time, yesterday morning, I thought I had a serious situation," said the Army's Harman. "There was a problem with getting the right background. I've learned something from it."