Remarks on government secrecy vs. disclosure

Saturday, March 27, 1999

You know, timing is everything. What a moment to
be discussing the
role of ‘openness’ in government, and the way this
Administration has
worked to balance the need for openness with the
need for appropriate

Senator (Daniel Patrick) Moynihan wrote in his
book, [titled] Secrecy, that ‘openness
is now a singular, and singularly American,
advantage. We put it in peril
by poking along in the mode of an age now past.’
Given the current
Congressional debate on China, I have no doubt
that we will put that
proposition to the test in the weeks and months

Now, we all pay homage to the idea that ‘openness’
stands at the
heart of what George Washington termed America’s
“great experiment.” Our
nation was founded on the revolutionary principle
that a government’s
legitimacy depends on the trust of the governed.
It’s an idea that
embraces every citizens’ right to participate in
decisions being made in
his or her name. And for more than two hundred
years, it’s been
safeguarded by a system of checks and balances
woven through the fabric of
our entire constitutional system.

Openness is what Supreme Court Justice Louis
Brandeis had in mind when
he said, “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”
He recognized that when
a people’s trust in their government — especially
a democratic government
— is undermined or brought into question, the government’s ability to work
can be severely impaired. There is nothing like
openness to guarantee a
strong democratic foundation and to maintain the
public faith.
But having said this, there are two important
principles we must never

The first is that our drive for greater openness
can not be
interpreted by anyone as a license to disclose
classified information.
There must be respect for the law, and respect for
the reality that there
are secrets worth protecting.

Some information must be closely held to protect
national security and
to engage in effective diplomacy. And often our
interest in protecting the
method by which information was obtained is even
greater than our interest
in protecting its content. For example, when
disclosures of classified
information mention satellite photos, other
nations often take heed and
conceal their activities.

When ‘intercepts’ or ‘eavesdropping’ are
mentioned, we often find that
codes or equipment are changed and listening
devices are disabled. And
when human sources are revealed, as they were by
Aldrich Ames to the Soviet
Union, the consequences can be fatal.

The Gulf War provided another telling example: In
1990, U.S. press
reports disclosed that our imagery satellites had
detected fixed Scud
missile launch sites in western Iraq. Baghdad
responded by building decoy
launchers to fix our attention, and, during the
early phases of the war,
our air strikes, on these sites, which they no
longer intended to use.
While our pilots risked their lives to attack the
unused fixed positions,
the Iraqis switched to using mobile Scud
launchers, from which they rained
missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, in addition to the problem of
unauthorized disclosures and
leaks, we also face the more serious problem of
espionage. As you all
certainly know, it is now clear that during the
1980s, China may have
acquired sensitive information about U.S. nuclear
weapons technology from
the Energy Department’s labs. When the allegations
of Chinese espionage
were brought to our attention, the Administration
responded. The
allegations were thoroughly investigated. Key
members of Congress were
briefed. Early last year, the president approved
PDD-61, which directed
the Energy Department to strengthen its security
and counter-intelligence
procedures. We are vigorously implementing that

We have also maintained export control policies
for China that are
among the most restrictive we apply to any country
in the world. We do not
authorize any arms sales to China or exports of
dual use technology for
military uses. We also limit the export of dual
use technology to China
for civilian uses to minimize the chance it may be
diverted. And we have a
complete ban on any assistance to China’s nuclear
weapons or ballistic
missile programs.

We have no illusions that China and many other
nations seek to acquire
our most sensitive information. As the world’s
leading military and
technological power, we are by definition the
world’s number one target for
military and industrial espionage. The right
response to foreign
intelligence on our soil is stronger
counter-intelligence, and strict
enforcement of our laws governing the disclosure
of information and the
export of technologies. The president and the
entire administration are
committed to those ends.

What we must avoid is a temptation somehow to
recreate the political
and scientific world of the 1950s, by shutting off
academic exchanges, and
creating a climate of mistrust and fear in our
contacts with the people of
other nations. No nation benefits more from the
free flow of ideas than
the United States. And no cause benefits more from
the free flow of ideas
than the cause of freedom, including the cause of
freedom in China.

And that brings me to my second principle, which
is that the
requirements of secrecy are not fundamentally in
conflict with our
commitment to openness in the ways our government
— and our nation — does

The best way to encourage respect for our most
important secrets,
among administration officials and government
employees, among members of
Congress and their staffs, among members of the
press, among the American
people, is for secrecy to be returned to a limited
but necessary role, and
ultimately, to reduce the number of secrets
overall. That is the
fundamental conclusion reached by the Commission
on Protecting and Reducing
Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Moynihan.
And that’s the principle
that drives President Clinton’s commitment to
protect secrets critical to
our national security, while promoting greater
openness in government.

Three overlapping tenets underlie this policy

First, in a
free society, the public must have access to
information about the workings
of government.

Second, in the information age,
government must use
technology to promote openness — but it must use
it wisely, and in ways
that prevent unauthorized access. And third, in an
era of shrinking
budgets, the management of government information
must be cost-effective.
Let me elaborate briefly on each of these points,
starting first with the
purpose of openness in a free society.
As I mentioned earlier, our founders understood
that democracy cannot
function in the absence of public information. But
practically speaking,
there are other, less-philosophical reasons for
government to want to make
information as widely available as possible.

Greater openness permits
better public understanding of government’s
actions — and makes it more
possible for the government to justify its actions
and respond to
criticism. Greater openness makes the free
exchange of scientific
information possible, which in turn encourages
discoveries that foster
economic growth and social well-being. And greater
openness, especially
regarding the government’s past actions, can help
resolve long-standing
controversies — and often provide guidance for
the future.

The second tenet underlying our policy of openness
is the use of new
technologies to increase the free flow of
information. In 1996, we worked
with Congress, and in particular with Senator
Leahy, to enact the
Electronic Freedom of Information Act.

Since President Clinton signed the bill into law,
literally millions
of pages of public information with widespread
public interest have been
made available on the Internet. And I would note
that this success is due
in no small part to Vice President Gore’s efforts
to reinvent government so
that it “works better and costs less.” As a
result, today, every federal
agency has a public web site where citizens can
learn about the policies
and programs that affect their lives. The vice
president may not have
invented the Internet, but he sure has helped make
the government more
accessible through the Internet.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that
the information
revolution is also creating new challenges for the
management of
information, particularly in information security.
New technology is
promoting access, but computer security too often
remains an afterthought.

Above and beyond the difficult but somewhat
routine questions of
controlling access to classified and sensitive —
but unclassified —
computer systems, the government is beginning to
grapple with the national
security challenges posed by access to open source
information on the net.
To help you consider the problem, can you imagine
the allied armies
planning the D-Day deception if every unit had its
own Web site’

The third tenet I mentioned is that government
management of
information must be cost-effective. The E-FOIA
statute I discussed earlier
recognizes that it’s cheaper to disseminate
information that you know the
public is likely to be interested in, than to wait
for the public to
request that information under FOIA.

FOIA is the least efficient way to make government
information public.
This is true from the federal budget standpoint;
in terms of the cost to
the public; and in terms of the delay in getting
information out. Our
information management systems must be built to
maximize the appropriate
and timely dissemination of information to the
public, so that we don’t
have to go back and release it on a costly,
piecemeal, after the fact

The president’s policy on classification and
embodied in Executive Order 12958, is built on
these tenets. President
Clinton has led the administration and its
agencies in an unprecedented
effort to meet the Order’s declassification

In fiscal years 1996 and 1997, agencies
declassified more than 400
million pages of historically valuable documents
— 50 percent more than in
the previous 16 years combined. The Information
Security Oversight Office
(ISOO) estimates that these 400 million pages
constitute about a quarter of
the total universe of classified pages subject to
declassification by April 2000.

In other words, we are off to a good start. And
this year, I am
especially pleased that President Clinton’s FY
2000 budget requests $30
million specifically designated to support
declassification, with a focus
on historically valuable records. This request is
the first ever by any
president for this purpose — and is a sign of the
president’s commitment
to maintaining a more open government. This
funding will help us build on
the declassification record that our government
has set over the past
several years. Let me give you a few other

You know the work of the Kennedy Assassination
Records Review Board.
Its accomplishments include reviewing and voting
on over 27,000 previously
redacted assassination records, and obtaining
agencies’ consent to release
an additional 33,000-plus assassination records.
These records included
previously redacted records from the CIA’s
Directorate of Operations, and
FBI documents describing the FBI’s attempts to
track Lee Harvey Oswald’s
activities in Europe prior to the

None of this progress would have occurred without
the cooperation of
the agencies involved. I think history will show
that, for this unique set
of records — given the importance of their full
release in terms of public
confidence in government — the process and
expense were well-justified.
The process permitted a few of the
declassification recommendations to go
to the highest levels, including the president.
The Board is an example of
how clear direction and accountability can produce

And there are other examples worth noting. In 1994
President Clinton
issued an executive order that declassified in
bulk approximately 45
million pages of World War Two and Vietnam War era
documents — nearly 15%
of the National Archives’ classified materials.
In 1995 the president ordered, for the first time,
declassification of overhead imagery from the
Corona, Argon, and Lanyard
missions — historic documents which will be of
great value to historians,
as well as the natural resource and environmental

In 1996, NSA released extensive information about
the Venona project.
Ending a 50-year silence on one of cryptography’s
most successful efforts,
and providing valuable insight into Soviet
attempts to infiltrate the U.S.
government. That same year, NSA initiated “Project
Open Door,” releasing
over one million pages of historic crypto-logic
documents that provide
insight into some of the century’s most compelling

We have also tried hard to help nations in which
the United
States supported covert activities during the Cold
War come to terms with
difficult periods in their past. Recently,
Guatemala’s Historical
Clarification Commission released a report that
detailed the human rights
violations the Guatemalan government committed
during that country’s civil

It also released information concerning America’s
support for
military and intelligence units that engaged in
killings and repression.
The United States provided $1.5 million in support
for the commission’s
work, and declassified over 4,000 documents at its
request. The president
was in Guatemala last week and he pledged our
continued support for this

Our progress is not just limited to the
declassification of old
documents. Perhaps more significant is a trend
that will affect future
declassification. Before President Clinton signed
the executive order, a
tiny minority — only 5% — had a fixed
declassification date. Since
President Clinton signed the executive order, ten
times that number are now
marked for declassification in ten years or

Finally, notwithstanding the Armstrong decision —
that National
Security Council records are presidential records,
and thus not subject to
FOIA — the NSC has continued to apply
discretionary access policies and
procedures. Since 1997, pursuant to presidential
direction, the NSC has
reviewed approximately half a million pages for
declassification, and has
determined that 90% of them can be released in
whole or in part.

Let me conclude by saying that the administration
will continue to
pursue a policy of government openness and balance
the vital interests of
national security with the public’s right to know.
But doing so requires
real choices. It requires us to make distinctions
between those things that
are unambiguously important to protect, and those
where the public interest
in disclosure outweighs the harm that could come
from release.

But we in government are not the only ones with a
responsibility. A
generation ago, when The New York Times
published The Pentagon Papers, a
great controversy ensued. In newsrooms across the
country, journalists
debated whether and when it is ethically right for
the press to make public
classified information that might damage national

In retrospect most people would probably say that
the Times made the
right call back then; that the very real danger of
publishing that material
was outweighed by the depth and breadth of the
deceptions that needed to be
exposed. The point is, the debate took place.
Reporters and editors
consciously and gravely weighed the public’s right
to know against the
government’s need to maintain some secrecy.

Today, highly classified information appears on
the front pages of
newspapers not rarely but almost daily — much of it
extremely damaging to
our national security. Yet debate about it has
virtually disappeared.
Instead there seems to be formulaic rationale that
says that a journalist’s
only obligation is to get as much controversial
classified material as
possible, verify its authenticity, and get it into

If the source of the leak happens to be the loser
of a policy battle
bent on revenge; if the leaks have been carefully
selected in order to give
a partisan, politically damaging, one-sided view;
if that view can only be
rebutted by the leaking of still more classified
information; if the leaks
upset months of delicate diplomacy, compromise
intelligence sources and
methods, or put intelligence assets at risk —
none of these considerations
seem to be considered. In fact, many journalists
consider it a basic rule
of journalism that they do not to let such
considerations get in the way of
their story.

I’m not arguing against tough, investigative
reporting. It’s the most
important safeguard against government mistakes
and the natural inclination
to not admit those mistakes, or in the worst cases
to cover them up. What
I am asking is that journalists and editors
consider the costs of a system
fine-tuned to dig out and publish as much highly
classified information as
possible, and that they ask themselves, ‘Is this
the right balance in our
profession?’ It’s a judgment they will have to

Balance is more difficult than a policy of
unthinking secrecy or
unthinking disclosure. In pursuing a balanced
approach, we, in the
administration, seek to protect national security
but also to be true to
our most fundamental values as a nation. For over
two centuries, we have
prospered and won because — at our best — we
have found ways to do both.
As James Madison wrote in 1822, “A popular
government without popular
information, or means of acquiring it, is but a
prologue to a farce or
tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever
govern ignorance, and a
people who mean to be their own governors must arm
themselves with the
power which knowledge gives.”

I pledge to you that — as long as I am chief of
staff to the
president — I will work alongside with you to
that noble end.

Thank you.