NEARLY nine years ago I resigned as chairman of the Department of State's Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation to protest the department's distortion of the record of American foreign policy. Congress stepped in to strengthen the committee in an effort to give the American public an honest account of its government's past performance. But the battle is on the verge of being lost.
Heroic efforts by current committee members have brought significant successes, as evidenced by the story of CIA covert operations in Indonesia in 1958 that is published in a recent State Department volume. But the State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council are fighting a successful rear-guard action to keep their secrets and hide their blunders from the public.
The struggle is being fought on two levels. Most obviously, the national security bureaucracy is attempting to hide from Americans the fact of covert operations in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1961, operations that succeeded in bringing down the government of Cheddi Jagan. Similarly, it is attempting to keep secret arrangements between the US government and the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan involving financial support for conservative candidates in Japanese elections and the housing of US nuclear weapons there. We are faced with a continuing effort to distort the historical record.
The same bureaucracy has blocked the Clinton administration's efforts to expedite the process of declassification. The National Security Council has asked to be exempted. State Department officials responsible for security and declassification continue to obstruct. The draft executive order to implement reforms in the classification-declassification system has been bottled up for 18 months.
TO demonstrate new ``openness,'' the CIA's historical office has published some interesting volumes on the CIA under President Truman and the Cuban missile crisis.
The agency has refused, however, to systematically declassify documents nearly 50 years old. Like the KGB or the Chinese secret services, the CIA will choose from its vast files those documents it wants the public to see. Like their colleagues in Moscow and Beijing, the ``old boys'' in McLean, Va., are more interested in promoting their organizational agenda than in providing the truth.
None of these secrets are secrets from the foreign governments involved. The ``secret'' bombing of Cambodia was no secret to the Cambodians at the receiving end. Iranians know all the details of CIA operations that overthrew their government and brought them the Shah and his dreaded secret police. The Indonesians knew most of the details of the CIA's efforts to foment civil war in their country.
The US government is trying to keep these actions secret to its own people. When secrets leak out, as so often they do, mistrust of government intensifies, willingness to accept public explanations at face value declines, and the government's ability to function is hampered.
We must break out of this cycle of secrecy, dishonesty, and mistrust. The national security will not be endangered by telling Americans the truth about their government's deeds and misdeeds in the early cold-war years. By far the greater danger comes from contempt for democratic processes among government officials and the mistrust their actions engender among the people.
We must start telling the people the truth about our past. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.