FBI exempted from declassification order, newspaper reports

Monday, July 20, 1998

WASHINGTON — The FBI was exempted from an order signed three years ago by President Clinton automatically declassifying millions of old government secrets, The Washington Post reported Sunday.


FBI officials defended the previously undisclosed exemption, saying it was necessary because of the huge size of the files in which both classified and unclassified records are intermingled, often without labels to show which ones were supposed to deal with national security, the newspaper said.


When he signed the order in 1995, Clinton said it would “lift the veil on millions of existing documents, keep a great many future documents from ever being classified and still maintain necessary controls over information that legitimately needs to be guarded in the interests of national security.”


His order calling for automatic declassification of old records by 2000 was characterized at the time as the most significant step in reducing government secrecy since the beginning of the Cold War.


The plan envisioned exemptions for the most sensitive records, such as CIA covert actions, but those exemptions were to be granted after a complex process that calls for “a specific date or event” when the exemptions are to end.


Only the FBI was given blanket immunity without any cutoff date, the Post said.


It said the arrangement first came to light in court papers last month and was laid out in detail in a memo obtained by the Post last week under the Freedom of Information Act.


Steven Garfinkel, director of the government's Information Security Oversight Office and a signatory to the plan, said the exemption was “a negotiated agreement whereby the FBI would get a very broad exemption in return for a very broad commitment” to review and declassify old records on a document-by-document basis.


“Director [Louis J.] Freeh is absolutely committed to the spirit of the executive order and to declassifying documents as fast as our resources permit,” Assistant FBI Director John E. Collingwood told the Post.


The FBI has declassified some records recently, including files from the 1960s and 1970s on the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, Students for a Democratic Society and various anti-war protests, including the upheaval at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


But Garfinkel told the Post that the FBI has declassified a “very minuscule” amount of records and that “right now the jury is still out on whether the results are going to justify this broad exception.”


Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said it was
“difficult to say” what the impact of the FBI exemption from the Clinton
administration's declassification order would be, in part because it was
unclear whether the order itself would have any significant impact.


“We've been trying to say for years what the real impact of the
declassification order is,” Kirtley said. “Any president could
rescind it or it could take years and years to implement. So does the
exclusion mean we're going to be denied documents we would have obtained at
some point down the road? I'm not sure.”


“It's been very hard to assess how useful the new classification order has
been in practice to date because it's been so sluggish in its
implementation,” Kirtley continued. “I can't honestly tell you it's (the
exemption) going to make a huge difference in the short term.”


Nonetheless, she said it was a “bad principle to bow to the FBI” on
matters of declassification when other agencies such as the CIA or the
National Security Agency are included.