Report criticizes practice of giving appointees control of classified papers

June 18, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Caspar W. Weinberger legally removed 13,000 classified documents from the Defense Department when he resigned as secretary in 1987, according to a report made public yesterday that criticized the practice of letting departing presidential appointees decide what to take with them and then control access to those papers.

The papers that Mr. Weinberger took, and then donated to the Library of Congress, include 1,700 pages of notes from a personal diary that recorded his discussions with other Reagan administration officials about arms sales to Iran.

Aides to Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-contra affair, discovered the documents, which provided the basis for Mr. Weinberger's indictment on five felony charges on Tuesday.

According to the report, "For Their Eyes Only: How Presidential Appointees Treat Public Documents as Personal Property," the papers that Mr. Weinberger removed are among 1 billion documents that over the years have been subjected to an "overused" classified stamp and a double standard concerning public access.

The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a not-for-profit group that examines public service issues.

Last year, the General Accounting Office, the principal investigative arm of Congress, found that some classified information that was removed by departing presidential appointees "did not receive required security protection."

It urged that the law be amended to prevent such officials from removing the documents until the National Archives and Records Administration determined that their removal complied with the law.

Mr. Weinberger's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, said yesterday that the transfer of his client's papers to the Library of Congress "was done in full accordance with federal laws and regulations; the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed."

The report also said that Mr. Weinberger "appears to be legally within his rights," though it added: "But his personal control over government documents raises larger issues. Who should own government documents generated at government expense: privileged former officials or the public at large? And should privileged former officials and political insiders be the only ones to profit from such access?"

Mr. Weinberger is among many former high-ranking public officials allowed to remove and control classified documents in accordance with an executive order issued by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972.

Other officials include former Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Clark M. Clifford, Elliot L. Richardson, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Frank C. Carlucci, and former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger, Alexander M. Haig Jr. and George P. Shultz.

Some of the documents consist of personal notes, xTC memorandums and diaries, but the report contended that anything written on government time and at taxpayer expense should be considered public.

The report urged that despite the opposition of many former presidential appointees, most classified documents be declassified after five years.

Steve Weinberg, a former executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, which prepared the report, noted that many former officials have warned that such a revision would have "a chilling effect" because "much less would be committed to paper, and much of what still gets written down would be self-consciously sanitized or destroyed before release."

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