Draft policy would ease secrecy rules

March 18, 1994|By Tim Weiner | Tim Weiner,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- At President Clinton's instruction, the National Security Council has drafted an order that would overhaul government secrecy rules, make public tens of millions of classified documents from the Cold War and reduce the number of new secret records, government officials said yesterday.

The order would create the least secretive policy on government records since the birth of the modern national security apparatus in 1947.

The order would require the automatic declassification of secret documents after 25 years. Only the head of an agency, such as the secretary of defense or the director of central intelligence, would have the power to stop release of a document.

Newly created secret documents would be declassified after 10 years at most.

The new order would also establish a government-wide data base and directory of declassified documents available to the public.

The policy calls for government officials to err on the side of openness when weighing whether a document should be classified in the first place.

That would reverse the balancing act required under the prevailing executive order issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Today the presumption is that documents should be secret; once secret, they can remain sealed indefinitely.

Mr. Clinton ordered a review of secrecy rules in April. After nearly a year of heated debate, the council sent the draft presidential order yesterday to the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies for comment.

If Mr. Clinton signs it, as expected, the rules could to take effect by the end of the year.

By the end of the century, most military and intelligence records from the beginning of the Cold War to the end of the Vietnam War would be available to scholars and students of U.S. foreign policy, government officials said.

Billions of secret records from those decades are locked away at the National Archives, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and in classified document depositories throughout the nation. Scholars of the Cold War liken their knowledge of its inner workings to a few islands jutting above the surface of a secret sea.

The ocean of classified documents is so large that no one in the government knows how many secret records are in it. It includes yellowing papers from 1916, before the U.S. entry into World War I, analyzing that war in Europe.

But among its other documents are Pentagon assessments of the benefits of launching a pre-emptive war against the Soviet ZTC Union in the 1950s and White House records of plans to reorganize a national government if Washington were hit by a nuclear bomb.

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