House panel cuts funds for Defense Department records release

Thursday, May 27, 1999

A House proposal to slash the U.S. Department of Defense's records-declassification budget from $200 million to $20 million would effectively halt the release of documents classified more than 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, a separate amendment introduced yesterday in the Senate by Trent Lott, R-Miss., calls for the review of most of the 600 million pages of documents that have been declassified since 1995 under a presidential edict. The Senate move was part of security proposals offered in response to reported leaks of nuclear-weapons information to China.

Press and freedom-of-information advocates decried the budget proposal, saying it would keep billions of important government reports secret, even though they should now be open.

“That is bad security policy,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “When you keep things classified unnecessarily, you dilute your security resources and divert them to where they're not needed.”

The House Armed Services Committee on May 19 approved 55-1 the Fiscal Year 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize a Defense Department budget of nearly $290 billion.

Committee Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C., said Congress over the last five years has had to beef up the budget to pay for “important unfunded priorities” from President Clinton.

“The first obvious truth is that the Administration has consistently underfunded defense for years,” Spence said in a statement. “The second is that despite the approximately $50 billion dollars that Congress will have added to the defense budget over the past five years, debilitating shortfalls continue to mount across the entire force.”

Among Clinton's priorities was Executive Order 12958, an edict given in 1995 calling for the automatic release of government reports sealed more than 25 years ago. Such an order means that most classified documents no longer require a line-by-line review to be declassified, thus reducing the growing backlog of records.

Between 1995 and 1998, the government declassified an unprecedented 600 million pages of documents.

But a federal law passed last year — the 1999 Defense Authorization Act — suspended Clinton's order until the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Archives could develop a plan to ensure that sensitive nuclear weapons information protected by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 would not be released.

Senate Majority Leader Lott yesterday proposed an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that would require a “page-by-page” review of all of the records released thus far.

The amendment conflicts with the budget restrictions proposed in the House.

Spence says new review guidelines are very costly to implement and that the House committee approved the budget cut because “there are more important defense-readiness uses” for the budget's operations and maintenance money.

Aftergood says the budget cut might be part “of a more general frenzy over Chinese espionage and the supposed loss of American security.”

“Congress thinks it's clamping down and protecting U.S. secrets, but really [it is] damaging security,” he said.

“We're talking about well over a billion pages that are over 25 years old,” Aftergood said. “And these are not your average records. These are documents which have been deemed to have historical value. These are the cream of the crop of valuable records.”