Government watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POG0) filed suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft Wednesday over the reclassification of documents relating to a whistleblower's claims of security lapses in the FBI's translator program. POGO argues that reclassifying documents that were previously in the public domain is illegal and unconstitutional. During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Ashcroft took responsibility for the decision to classify the documents, citing US national interests. AP has the full story. POGO provides background on the retroactive classification.
I had thought the question of classifying public domain information was settled long ago in the 'classified at birth' debate, when the government climbed down from its assertion that some scientific discoveries with military implications (e.g. strong cryptography or strong decryption methods) could be classified even if derived entirely from non-classified sources by persons unaffiliated with the government.
The seemingly technical question of the government's ability to classify public information is in fact very important. If Ashcroft were to get his way, the government would have the ability to shut down debate on a set of public policy issues by waving a classified stamp. That would take us another (not-so-little?) step in the direction of authoritarian government.