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Is U.S. Keeping Too Many Secrets?

Government's penchant for classifying information has helped conspiracy theories flourish. But Cold War's end, Internet access aid forces of openness.

10,000 Secrets a Day
Federal agencies designated 3.5 million records as classified in 1995. About 3.2 million government and contract workers were cleared to view them.
Number of files
Total: 3.6 million
Top Secret: 400,000
Secret: 2.4 Million
Confidential: 750,000
Employees With Clearances
Confidential: 154,000
Top Secret: 768,000
Secret: 2.3 Million
Protected information must concern:
  • Military
  • Foreign Governments
  • Intelligence activities
  • Foreign relations
  • Nuclear programs
  • National security
  • How they're defined
Top Secret: Disclosure of such information would cause "grave damage" to national security.
Secret: Disclosure would cause "serious" damage to national security.
Confidential: Disclosure would "damage" national security.
Source: Information Security Oversight Office's 1996 Report to the President.

By Eleanor Randolph
The Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1997

NEW YORK--In the secrecy trade, they are sometimes known as the "three-initial" conspiracies--the JFK assassination, Vietnam POWs, and the UFOs in the New Mexico desert.

All three have inspired elaborate fantasies, numerous movies and a persistent public suspicion that the truth is hidden somewhere deep inside Washington's mountain of classified documents. Take the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. After the government decreed that it was the work of a lone gunman, polls showed about half of the public thought Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only person involved. Since then, the number of those doubting the government's version has risen to about 75%.

Is this the work of Hollywood? No, it's Washington, say a number of politicians, historians and journalists who are looking at the way the U.S. government creates and hoards its secrets.

"This is not a good situation. If everything's secret, then people think 'What are they keeping from us?' " says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of a high-powered U.S. Commission on Protecting and Reducing Secrecy that issued its recommendations to Congress in March.

"It's very unhealthy for a large proportion of the population to think that the government itself might be the enemy."

Or as Paul McMasters, 1st Amendment expert at The Freedom Forum in Virginia, puts it: "The government's obsession with secrecy creates a citizens' obsession with conspiracy."

Most people believe that the government deserves to keep some secrets, primarily to preserve national security. But with the end of the Cold War, and the increasing capability of the Internet to increase public access, the forces of openness have started to put pressure on Congress and the federal bureaucracy to end what Moynihan calls the "ultimate form of government regulation--government secrecy."

This month, Moynihan, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and Reps. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Larry Combest (R-Texas) introduced legislation--the Government Secrecy Act of 1997--to encourage the nation's bureaucrats to stamp fewer documents secret and to declassify more files for public use.

The bill, based on the commission's recommendations, would limit classification to 10 years, unless an agency head certifies the information needs continued protection. That information would have to be opened within 30 years unless an agency head can show that the data are essential for national security or would do "demonstrable harm to an individual."

Backers of this bill argue that it raises the threshold for a secret by requiring the bureaucrat to show a "demonstrable need" to protect national security, to balance that need against the public's right to know and to try to keep the nation's secrets to a minimum.

Today's standards for stamping documents "top secret," "secret" or "confidential" are that the information "reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security." The seven categories allowed for such secrets--which range from technical information to names of agents--are believed to give most classifiers plenty of latitude. One White House official suggested that a bureaucrat would have to be "unimaginative" not to fit most any information into one of the authorized categories. 10,000 New Secrets a Day

Although nobody is certain how many papers are hidden in government vaults, unofficial estimates range from 2 billion to 10 billion pages. About 1.5 billion of these documents are more than 25 years old. At the latest official count for the year 1995, the U.S. government made 3.6 million decisions to classify something--from a word or phrase to an entire document. That's roughly 10,000 new secrets a day.

Slightly more than half the secrets are created at the Pentagon. The CIA contributes 30%, the Justice Department 10%, the State Department 3%, and all other agencies 1%.

The secrets range from the identity of a CIA source to the amount of the intelligence budget, a "secret" even though it's been in the media and inadvertently in some official government documents.

Some secrets now being revealed are scandals. A 1947 letter from an official at what was then called the Atomic Energy Commission demanded that "no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits." The letter was made public in 1994.

But most are far less compelling, to the point that an outsider would wonder why they were made secrets at all.

"If our government were a church, it would be named Our Lady of Perpetual Secrets," says Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nongovernment research library at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "That's the default setting. Secrecy is what happens if nothing gets done."

The idea of too much openness is not for everyone. Privacy advocates worry that details about individuals will seep into the public domain. Companies are worried that industrial secrets will get into competitors' hands. And finally there is the huge government bureaucracy whose habit of using the secrecy stamp will not be easily broken. As McMasters says, "they will do everything in their power to maintain the status quo."

Since 1951, the level of government secrecy has been determined by the president--resulting in six executive orders in 46 years. President Nixon was the first to begin a systematic process of review that sent analysts scurrying to their secret libraries in search of documents that could be released. As a result, huge archives of material about World War II were suddenly open for public perusal.

President Carter opened the doors a notch wider. Some files were historical blockbusters--like details about civilians living near the atomic tests in Nevada in the late 1950s and 1960s. Others were infuriatingly mundane--such as the weather reports produced by an aide to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II.

President Reagan was more cautious and the secrecy backlog built up again until 1995, when President Clinton issued an order attempting to reopen the file drawers to the public. The year before Clinton's order, the government declassified 11.5 million documents. In 1995, more than 57 million documents were declassified, according to the U.S. Security Oversight Office. The latest report, expected this summer, should show an even more dramatic increase for 1996. Pressure Gives Rise to Revelations

Although the Clinton administration has helped open many of the dustier archives, some of the most dramatic releases recently--such as the information about Nazi gold hoarded in Switzerland and some of the background data on the JFK assassination--are the result of congressional or media pressure.

Many historians chart the growth of American state secrecy with the advent of anti-German frenzy as the U.S. entered World War I. Concerned increasingly about "the Hun within," as Theodore Roosevelt put it, the Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917, which enshrined secrecy in the name of national security and became the basis for modern spy prosecutions.

Facing a communist superpower after World War II, the U.S. added the National Security Act of 1947. This law set up the nation's foreign intelligence system and added new layers to the control of national secrets.

"But, the world today is very different," says Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, which will hold hearings on the new secrecy bill. "Today, dominance depends on the ability to analyze information and pull out what is important from what is not. And improved analysis comes not from suppressing information, but from making it widely available and subject to wide scrutiny."

Understandably, some agencies like the CIA are less than enthusiastic about sharing new analyses and even about releasing some of the old ones. For example, last year the official State Department history of U.S. foreign policy in Northeast Asia from 1961-63 was published with a surprising caveat. It said that although the study of areas like China and even Korea was complete, so much of the material about Japan was absent that the document "does not constitute a 'thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of United States foreign policy decisions"' as required by law.

Missing from the report were CIA documents that could explain how the CIA supported a conservative Japanese political party to help fight communism 35 years ago. The CIA balked on releasing the documents, despite the fact that details about the agency's support of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party were outlined in the New York Times in October 1994.

Maintaining a cloak of secrecy on facts long after the world knows them is one of the government's more irritating tendencies, Helms told the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which held a hearing last week on the Moynihan commission report.

Helms, who is now in his fifth term as senator, recalled that when he was "the new boy on the block" he was on the Armed Services Committee. "And I remember I went to so many classified meetings . . . when we were informed in detail of everything that was in the Washington Post and the New York Times that morning."

Such timely information seldom comes through the official system for getting documents released from the government, which at best is cumbersome and often simply unworkable. Documents Due in Timely Fashion

Under the Freedom of Information Act, (FOIA) originally passed 30 years ago, the government is supposed to review requests to release documents in a timely fashion.

Journalists often grouse that the system is too slow for the news business, but it may not even be speedy enough for most historians. Page Putnam Miller, director of a consortium of history and archive groups called the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, noted that for most historians "FOIA is not something we can use well. It's too cumbersome and slow," she said.

Terry Anderson, the former Associated Press reporter taken hostage in 1985 in Lebanon, decided to write a book after he was released in 1991. He asked the government to release documents relating to his case, and eventually he filed FOIA suits against 13 agencies.

An incredulous Anderson reported that several agencies argued that they would need the permission of his terrorist captors before they could release the documents he requested.

"I have received some files," Anderson said recently, "but they've all been crap. In large part, they consisted of published news stories, some of them my own."

"Given the natural inertia of the bureaucracy, these guys don't really have anything to win when they release documents. And they have a lot to lose if they release the wrong document and somebody starts screaming at them. They don't get bonuses for being open. They don't get patted on the back for being open, and without strong and sustained pressure from the public and this White House, they're not going to change."

For many, a FOIA request means a long wait for nothing. Although some agencies take months, the Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency can take years to respond. Blanton said that in one case a request on appeal to the CIA in 1987 for a document resulted in a response last month.

As a result, most journalists get their information via the leak. The culture of secrecy, in fact, is the culture of leaking selected secrets to the press.

"The utility of the FOIA is declining quite steadily, and at the same time, the frequency of leaks has been increasing," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

The conservative Washington Times has printed numerous classified documents in recent years. But a satellite photo the newspaper published on New Year's Day especially startled the intelligence and anti-secrecy community.

It was a secret photo of the Russian aircraft carrier Varyag being dismantled in Ukraine. A similar satellite photo of the Varyag's sister ship Kuznetsov was leaked in 1984 to Jane's Defence Weekly in Britain. After Jane's printed the photo, a Navy intelligence analyst, Samuel Loring Morison, became the first person to serve time in jail (two years) for espionage for providing information to the media.

The Washington Times has had some indications that the FBI is investigating how it obtained its satellite photos. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has said that there are 17 ongoing cases about such leaks, but there have been no arrests or charges.

"Leaking has a symbiotic relationship with secrecy," writes Sissela Bok in her 1989 book "Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation." "Without secrecy there would be no need to leak information. As government secrecy grows and comes to involve more people, the opportunities to leak from within expand; and with increased leaking, governments intensify their efforts to shore up secrecy." Conspiracy Theories Helped Release Secrets

In recent years, the federal government has been moved to unleash some of its secrets simply because of the intensity of the conspiracy theories that rushed into the vacuum.

As the public became concerned that American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action might have been left behind when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, Congress began to push for more data on those cases. In 1993, the Senate committee pursuing POW matters issued a report that said it was time for government demystification.

"Nothing has done more to fuel suspicion about the government's handling of the POW/MIA issue than the fact that so many documents related to those efforts have remained classified for so long," the report said.

After Oliver Stone's 1991 movie "JFK," which suggested a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, Congress created an assassination review board that has access to documents and has the authority to declassify records. At the end of 1996, the board had released about 3.1 million pages. But members said they were still trying to find other documents both here and in other countries, including Cuba.

Similarly, the widespread belief that the U.S. government had been hiding the story of a secret UFO crash in New Mexico in 1947 eventually prompted the Air Force to release "The Roswell Report; Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert." The more-than 1,000 pages of documents and analyses included a collection of interviews that helped explain why so many people believed that an alien spacecraft had crash-landed in the desert 50 years ago. The report made clear that the government was using high-altitude weather balloons to determine whether the Soviets were testing nuclear weapons, and that it was one of the balloons that had crashed.

"They finally released the information," said Aftergood, who put the report on his Web page. "But it took a full-blown public hallucination to shake these records loose."

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