We Pay a High Price for Government Secrecy

Most everyone who has dealt with government secrets has some mind-boggling story to tell.

I remember the German who worked on the daily press summary in the American Embassy in Bonn in the early 1960s. He wanted to refer back to an earlier summary he had compiled and was told he couldn't because it was classified.

The late William Colby told me that he had submitted his memoirs for agency clearance. Inadvertently, he had failed to delete from the French edition something the agency wanted out. He had to pay a fine.

Glenn Seaborg, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, has been trying for 14 years to get government permission to publish his diary, from which he says he carefully excluded everything remotely confidential.

Would you believe that volume 22 of the government series, "Foreign Relations of the United States," covering the years 1961 to 1963, was published with a warning that it was not to be considered reliable because of the deletions made by the Central Intelligence Agency?

Old secrets remain secret. One-and-a-half billion pages still classified after 25 years. And every year, 3.6 million new pages of secrets created.

Enough already, says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who headed a congressionally created commission on protecting and reducing government secrets. The commission's report makes an interesting point: Keeping secrets is a form of government regulation and worse, because the public doesn't know what is in the regulations.

So, the commission proposes that secrets be disclosed within 10 years - in special cases extended to 30 years - and that officials with classified documents be obliged to justify doing so. Also, that a national declassification center be created to work on releasing secrets.

In his foreword, chairman Moynihan cautiously says, "We are not out to put an end to secrecy.... But it is possible to conceive that secrecy, a culture of secrecy, need not remain the only norm.... That a competing culture of openness might develop which could ... demonstrate greater efficiency."

It's been 40 years since the last such congressionally mandated commission warned of the dangers of overclassification and advocated more openness. Nothing much came of that report. Officials love to stamp "top secret" on papers. It makes them feel important and helps to catch the boss's attention.

BUT secrecy has its price. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on safes, guards, couriers, and the whole administrative machinery of keeping track of whose "eyes only" are seeing the documents.

The greater price, though, lies in the use of secrecy to avoid embarrassment, a public kept in the dark about what the government is doing - and history deprived of knowing long after the fact what the government has done and why.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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