In Washington, a tug of war over secrets

Who gets to say, in the end, whether a congressional committee can disclose secrets that the administration doesn't want disclosed?

The question has arisen because the White House has banned the release of a 28-page section of a congressional joint committee report on the events leading up to Sept. 11, a section believed to deal mainly with Saudi Arabia and its links to the Al Qaeda terrorists.

The issue of control of information has come up before. In 1975, the Ford administration warned congressional investigating committees that unless they agreed to stop leaking national-security secrets, they would be cut off from all classified information. The committees maintained their independent right under the Constitution to declassify material on their own responsibility.

Finally, an Oval Office summit meeting between President Ford and the two committee chairmen, Sen. Frank Church (D) of Idaho and Rep. Otis Pike (D) of New York, produced an agreement that basically recognized the ultimate control of the executive branch. The deal provided that the president could veto a proposed release of classified information by certifying that it was in the national interest to do so.

A Senate resolution in 1976 formalized this arrangement, but with one important change. After the president objected, in writing, to the proposed release of certain information, the Senate could still consider the matter in closed session and approve the release of the material, in whole or in part, thus in effect overriding the presidential veto.

In practice, that is not likely to happen now in a Republican-controlled Senate, even though some Republican senators, including committee chairman Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, favor declassifying the controversial part of the report.

Saudi Arabia sent its foreign minister to Washington to insist on publication so that it could respond, but the president turned him down flat. In his news conference on July 30, Mr. Bush reiterated his insistence on withholding the whole 28 pages. After the summer recess, there may yet be a compromise between the committees and the CIA.

What this capital does not need right now is a grand confrontation between legislative and executive branches of government over who gets to wield that "secret" stamp.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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