Pentagon objects to ‘public interest’ rationale for declassifying records

Monday, August 2, 1999

Defense officials, lashing out at Senate efforts to increase declassification of once-secret government documents, say national security — not the public interest — should guide the unsealing of classified reports.

Specifically, officials are targeting Senate Bill 22, known as the Government Secrecy Reform Act, which allows classification of documents only if the damage to national security outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

“We strongly believe that the bill's proposed 'public interest balancing test' would damage the national security, and we would recommend that the President veto any legislation that contains this standard for classifying information,” wrote John Hamre, deputy defense secretary, to the Office of Management and Budget.

Hamre also expressed grave concern that the creation of a review board to oversee the declassification process would infringe on the powers of the president and those he appoints.

“These matters should remain the exclusive responsibilities of the agencies charged with protecting national security,” Hamre wrote. “The Review Board — a majority of whose members would be private citizens without any experience in government information security policy — should not have the authority to overrule the Secretary of Defense on an issue of national security.”

But Sen. Pat Moynihan, the New York Democrat serving as lead sponsor of the bill, contends that the “systematic declassification of records of permanent historic value is in the public interest” and called for comprehensive reform of the way government agencies handle such records.

In a 1997 report, the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Moynihan, wrote that the “best way to ensure that secrecy is respected, and that the most important secrets remain secret, is for secrecy to be returned to its limited but necessary role. Secrets can be protected more effectively if secrecy is reduced overall.”

The full Senate failed to consider the Government Secrecy Reform Act during the last session. The current bill, S 22, has been assigned to the Committee on Government Affairs.

Defense officials say they support efforts to declassify more and more records, citing the department's compliance with President Clinton's Executive Order 12958.

That 1995 edict called 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.

Last May, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., introduced an amendment calling for a “page-by-page” review of most of the 600 million pages of documents that have been declassified since Clinton's edict. That move came in conjunction with security proposals offered in response to reported leaks of nuclear-weapons information to China.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee last May slashed the Defense Department's records-declassification budget from $200 million to $20 million, a move some said would bring the Clinton effort to a crashing halt.

Freedom-of-information advocates decry efforts to stifle the release of important government documents to the public.

“Declassification is an essential mechanism for government accountability,” said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “In the absence of serious national security concerns, the government has no right to withhold much of the information that it does withhold.”

Aftergood blamed much of the opposition to declassification on a misrepresentation of facts.

“[Declassification] has been portrayed falsely as a kind of accessory to espionage, and it has been deemed too expensive to pay for,” Aftergood said. “But declassification has never been more productive and cheaper than in the last three years.”

Despite the mounting opposition to Clinton's order and to other efforts to unseal documents, government secrecy experts say they were pleased with two recent Senate votes on amendments to H.R. 1555, the Intelligence Authorization Act.

The Senate passed a non-binding resolution, sponsored by Moynihan, affirming the importance of declassification and the need for reform. The Senate also passed an amendment, also sponsored by Moynihan, authorizing an additional $1.5 million for the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees classification efforts.

But few expect the money to hold in the House, where an authorization bill has set the ISOO budget at a little more than $1 million — a level of funding that is essentially static.