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'For your eyes only': fewer secret US files get declassified stamp

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1984


The cardboard box of documents is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. It is marked ''Tehran Embassy, General Records, 1951,'' and has just been cleared by National Archives declassifiers.

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Many of the papers it holds are not exciting: transfer orders, trade complaints, a decree that ladies' attire at the Shah's marriage will be ''the dress worn at tea, with hat.''

Some, however, speak candidly of a society even then under great stress. ''The cooler heads are in the minority here at the present,'' one flimsy blue dispatch says. ''Anything may happen, but we are still optimistic that some workable arrangement will be made which at least will keep oil flowing to the West.''

Once-classified documents such as these are the raw materials of history. But over the last four years, the number of secret files being made public has been greatly reduced.

Under the Reagan administration, declassification of United States documents has dropped from 1980's record-high 90 million pages to 12 million pages last year. This tight grip on old secrets, historians complain, is greatly hindering the writing of post World War II history.

''In particular it is material dating from 1950 to 1954 that is being fought over,'' says Walter LaFeber, a Cornell history professor.

The United States, for instance, has let slip very little about its role in Guatemala's 1954 coup, Dr. LaFeber says. Material dealing with the 1953 uprising in Iran is still stamped ''secret,'' although US diplomats have written about their involvement in the action.

The roots of the dispute over classified documents lie in the fact that presidents have much control over what the government stamps ''secret,'' and which old files are dusted off and made public. Classification standards are set by executive order, not laws passed by Congress.

Ironically, it was President Nixon who first gave the public widespread access to once-sensitive government documents. In 1972, he signed an order establishing systematic declassification to clear out the piles of World War II documents then clogging government files.

President Carter pried open the file drawers even farther by requiring that government agencies review all 20-year-old documents for possible declassification.

Then, in 1982, President Reagan authorized a thorough renovation of the US classification system.

''This order enhances protection for national-security information without permitting excessive classification of documents by the government,'' Mr. Reagan said upon the occasion of the change.

Under Reagan, there are still three categories of classified information: confidential, secret, and top secret. (Only 2 percent of classified documents are top secret. Sixty-six percent are merely confidential. The Pentagon classifies the most documents, with the Central Intelligence Agency running a close second.)

About 7,000 government officials are authorized to wield classifying stamps. And lately those bureaucrats have actually been stamping less, by one important measure: classification of original documents declined 18 percent last year, points out Bob Wells, deputy director of the US Information Security Oversight Office.