Covert papers still secret CIA, Pentagon slow to obey Clinton order to declassify reports

'Culture of secrecy' found

Report says actions impede workings of government

March 05, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon and the CIA have largely ignored President Clinton's order to declassify millions of secret documents, perpetuating a "culture of secrecy" that shields the government from accountability, according to a report released yesterday.

Clinton's executive order, which took effect last year, required automatic declassification of documents more than 25 years old by the year 2000. Eighty-three percent of the information is held by the Defense Department and the CIA, the report said; the rest is at the Energy and the State departments.

"We need to balance the possibility of harm to national security against the public's right to know what the government is doing or not doing," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who is chairman of the bipartisan commission. The panel spent two years studying how the government classifies and declassifies information.

The documents are so closely held, the commission said, that they not only keep the public in the dark but also impede the workings of government, depriving some policy-makers of information they need.

The 12-member panel -- whose members include Ellen Hume, executive director of public broadcasting's Democracy Project, and Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican -- will press for legislation that they hope can ensure the release of more documents.

Among the recommendations:

An independent office, created by the president, to limit the number of classified documents to "an absolute minimum" and to decide what should be declassified.

A National Declassification Center to oversee the process and to make annual reports to Congress and the White House.

A 10-year life span for classified information, unless an agency specifies that the information must have continued secrecy. All information shall be declassified after 30 years unless it could pose "demonstrable harm" to a person or a government activity.

First review

The commission, set up by Congress, conducted the first review of the government's secrecy program in 40 years. One member, Martin C. Faga, former director of the spy satellite-building National Reconnaissance Office, conceded that the intelligence community had not complied well with Clinton's order but said officials are making progress.

Rep. Larry Combest, a Texas Republican who was vice chairman of the commission and formerly chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said that agencies do not devote enough money to declassification and that money should be set aside specifically for this purpose.

The commission said it saw a compelling need for an independent office, with the force of law, to govern how secrets are created and what should be released.

Too often, secrets are created not to protect national security but to "protect national security officials from embarrassment and inquiry," said another commission member, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who is a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Hamilton said he expected that the proposed independent office would "knock some heads" to win compliance.

Legitimate secrets

The study said the government must focus on protecting legitimate secrets, such as intelligence sources whose identity could endanger lives, and details of spy satellite operations.

The commission found that there are 1.5 billion documents more than 25 years old that are still classified, although more than half of them are being excluded under a national security exemption provided in the order. But so far, the agencies have declassified only 57 million documents as of January, or about one-tenth of what they had agreed to release.

Of the 166 million CIA documents more than a quarter-century old, 59 million are under review, and fewer than 20,000 have been released as of January, the report said. The Army is reviewing all of its 270 million documents but has released none. At the Navy, there are 500 million documents, an uncertain number under review, and 33 million have been released.

The Fort Meade-based National Security Agency has 129 million documents, 53 million under review and has released 1.9 million.

The FBI and the Energy Department obtained waivers from the automatic disclosure of documents 25 years or older in exchange for assurances that they would quickly review their unclassified records for release. But no FBI records have been released, and most of the Energy Department's records are withheld from public review under the Atomic Energy Act.

Security apparatus

The commission found a costly security apparatus through which about 3 million people in both government and industry can keep these documents under lock and key. It cost government and defense contractors $5.6 billion in 1995 to protect classified national security information.

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