Senator plans push for revised declassification bill

Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Sen. Patrick Mo...
Sen. Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

Sen. Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., plans next month to introduce a revised version of an earlier declassification bill in an effort to salvage attempts to reform the way government seals and unseals sensitive reports.

But open-government advocates say they fear that the new bill — known as the Public Interest Declassification Act of 1999 — drastically modifies reform proposals. In part, they say, the bill effectively strips all authority over government classification from the records review panel proposed in Moynihan's earlier legislation.

“It basically says that we're not going to accomplish systematic reform of classification policy in the foreseeable future,” said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “And I think that's a sad state of affairs.”

Michael Waterman, Moynihan's press secretary, says most of the changes are technical in nature but necessary to keep declassification-reform efforts on the table.

“But the spirit of the law is generally the same,” Waterman said. “This legislation is designed to increase the amount of material that gets declassified without putting any sensitive material in harm's way.”

The Public Interest Declassification Act marks Moynihan's second effort this session to reform declassification at the federal level. Defense officials tore into the senator's first effort — Senate Bill 22, known as the Government Secrecy Reform Act — as a threat to national security and an infringement on the president's authority.

That bill, if passed, would have allowed the classification of documents only if the damage to national security outweighed the public's interest in seeing the records. More specifically, Defense Department officials adamantly opposed the creation of a review panel that could overrule the Secretary of Defense on the classification of certain records.

“That bill is going nowhere fast,” Aftergood said, “the reason being that it met with fierce opposition from the Pentagon and CIA, and there is insufficient support in Congress to overcome that opposition.”

Efforts to improve federal declassification efforts came to a standstill after reported leaks of nuclear-weapons information to China. Although the FBI admits that it may have overstated the extent of the espionage scandal, opposition to declassification has not subsided.

Last year, Congress halted implementation of a 1995 presidential order that saw the declassification of more than 600 million pages of documents. This session, the GOP leadership proposed legislation that would require government officials to review those documents and consider reclassifying them.

Last month, the House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to slash the Defense Department's $200 million declassification budget to $51 million during the next fiscal year.

Waterman says the general government culture continues to believe that when officials don't know a document's sensitivity, they should stamp it “Top Secret” and throw it into a vault. Because of this prevalent attitude, Moynihan felt he had to alter his legislation to keep it alive.

“If we can start to change that culture of secrecy — as the senator calls it — in the future, there might be more of a tendency to reveal than to conceal and to say we needn't fear the truth and the American people from knowing the truth,” Waterman said.

Aftergood said he appreciated Moynihan trying to find “an achievable victory,” but that he wasn't sure this bill is a winner.

“We've managed to have declassification of JFK assassination records, of Pinochet and of other files without this process,” he said. “This could turn out to be the illusion of action without the substance. I respect Moynihan's initiative in this area — which is really unmatched anywhere else in Congress — and I'm reluctant to criticize him. But I'm not convinced that this is the bill.”