Prying open 'top secret' US safe

Torrent of declassified material filling in details of America's past

How long should a secret remain a secret?

America's oldest classified documents date back to 1917, and contain information about the use of invisible ink by German spies in World War I. Locked away in the bowels of the National Archives, the government refuses to make them public, but won't say why.

That doesn't surprise Mark Zaid, director of the James Madison Project, a Washington-based group that helps people obtain secrets under the Freedom of Information Act. Says he: "The government just overzealously classifies so much for no reason."

To make his point, Mr. Zaid this month brought a federal suit against the National Archives to force it to disclose the contents of the documents, only the titles of which are listed in the repository's file index.

Yet as Zaid and other experts concede, such cases are becoming more the exception than the rule. For when it comes to material stamped "top secret," the US is in the midst of a major sea change.

During the past two years, what was previously a trickle has become a torrent, with some 400 million pages of classified documents made available to anyone who wants them. The material - a treasure trove for academics, historians, and authors - ranges from satellite photographs of Soviet missile bases, to intercepts of messages sent by Soviet spies, to Warren Commission files of the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.

This is just a start. By 2000, another 1.2 billion pages are to be released. And efforts are under way in Congress to keep the disclosures flowing.

The Clinton administration "has essentially reprogrammed the secrecy bureaucracy to promote declassification," says Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy in Government Project. "That's a rare and amazing thing."

President Clinton launched the declassification effort in 1995 with an executive order directing US agencies to automatically declassify all historically important records 25 years or older by 2000. Those dealing with nuclear weapons or those that could still compromise intelligence sources and methods are exempt.

The decision was driven by many concerns, including Mr. Clinton's effort to streamline the bureaucracy. There were also widespread feelings that the government was trapped in a cold-war-bred culture of secrecy in which officials went too far in deciding what to classify, even stamping "top secret" on newspaper articles.

Not only did this excessiveness help fuel public distrust of the government, many experts say, but it distorted the historical record, prohibited the resolution of political controversies, and led to ill-informed policies that resulted in the unnecessary expenditures.

"Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate," says a 1997 report by an independent panel that spent two years studying government classification policies.

Yet despite the huge strides, the declassification effort has not been totally smooth. The number of documents being classified is growing, with fiscal 1997 seeing a 50 percent increase. That same year, government agencies spent a total of $3.4 billion on classification - excluding the CIA, whose expenditure is, that's right, classified.

Meanwhile, documents released by the Department of Energy were later found to have contained classified nuclear weapons data, reportedly including blueprints for a bomb. The discovery ignited a controversy last summer in Congress, leading Sen. John Kyl (R) of Arizona to propose legislation requiring a page-by-page review of all still-to-be-released documents covered by Clinton's order.

Opponents protested that the measure effectively would have ended the declassification process. A recent compromise halted new releases until January when the administration will give Congress a plan for averting further disclosures of nuclear-weapons data. Releases will then resume.

"We were able to change the legislation," says Steve Garfinkle, director of the Information Security Oversight Office. "We have drafted a plan that is now circulating to several government agencies."

In another wrinkle, some experts and government officials are critical of the response to declassification by the CIA. The agency generates an estimated 30 percent of the government's classified materials - the Pentagon produces about half - yet it accounts for 0.1 percent of the total amount of material released, they say.

Pleading a lack of resources, the CIA says declassification efforts will slow even further.

"The CIA has the money to do what they want to do," Mr. Aftergood says. "Declassification is one of the few obligations that the CIA has directly to the American public and I think its exceptionally important to meet those obligations."

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