Task force offers Gates options for lifting veil at CIA

January 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A panel established by CIA Director Robert M. Gates to explore ways to lift the veil of secrecy at the agency has recommended declassifying vast quantities of older documents and making agency officials more accessible to the public.

Intelligence officials say the internal panel has sent Mr. Gates a list of options that also include more on-the-record interviews, public speeches and public testimony to Congress by senior agency officials, as well as the release of new material to complement the current publication of maps, world fact books and economic reports.

The study group, the Openness Task Force, is one of a dozen that Mr. Gates set up soon after taking office in November on reorganizing the intelligence bureaucracy. Among the aims were eliminate duplication, give the White House and other policy-making agencies sharper reports on world developments and ensure that the reports were not slanted for political purposes.

The internal soul-searching stems from the pragmatic concern that in a world where the traditional enemy has ceased to exist, the intelligence community must justify its billion-dollar satellites and thousands of analysts and spies.

Under the openness panel's most sweeping recommendation, the CIA would declassify millions of pages of documents, some of them dating to World War I, and would publish a comprehensive inventory of materials available to the public, perhaps via computer data bases.

The officials who spoke about the panel's recommendations did not say how recent the declassified documents would be or whether some categories of older documents would still be withheld.

Mr. Gates is expected to make his decision on the recommendations of the study groups at the end of the month. A strong proponent of more openness during his Senate confirmation hearings, he is likely to accept many of the proposals.

But it is not clear how quickly the agency could carry them out. Declassification would require a substantial infusion of manpower at a time when the agency is cutting back its work force from the present level, estimated at 20,000 people.

Some researchers outside the government remain skeptical that any meaningful disclosure is possible.

"I'm not optimistic there will be more than cosmetic changes," said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on secrecy and government at the Federation of American Scientists. "The intelligence community reflexively classifies information and refuses to release it, for example. It pushes the limits of absurdity. But it's built into their mind set."

Mr. Aftergood cited what he called the oldest classified military document in U.S. files: a confidential file locked in the National Archives on troop movements in Europe, dated April 15, 1917, nine days after the United States entered World War I.

Other intelligence experts argue that a secret intelligence agency is inherent to the United States' greatness. "If this country is to continue as a leading world power, a secret intelligence agency is required," said James Schlesinger, a former CIA director and defense secretary.

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