Top Clinton aide: Find balance between secrecy, openness

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

John Podesta...
John Podesta

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Clinton administration
is committed to openness in its dealings but some
secrets must be kept to protect diplomacy and
military operations, the president’s chief of
staff told a National Freedom of Information Day
conference yesterday.

“Secrecy must be returned to a limited but
necessary role,” said John Podesta. The United
States, he said, is “the world’s No. 1 target for
industrial and military espionage.”

Referring to recent disclosures that important
U.S. nuclear secrets came into China’s possession,
Podesta said that key members of Congress were
briefed on the situation. The United States, he
said, has the strictest export controls on China
and a complete ban on assistance in nuclear

Although the alleged espionage took place in the
1980s, an investigation was not begun until 1995.
A Taiwan-born scientist, the subject of the probe,
was fired from his job only this year, prompting
congressional criticism that the administration
was lax.

Podesta said that while “everyone pays homage” to
openness in government, some secrets must be held.
This has become difficult in these days of the
Internet and a culture of information-sharing
among scientists.

“Can you imagine the Army planning the D-Day
deception if every unit in that Army had its own
Web site?” he said.

The conference included representatives of both
federal and state governments as well as members
of the archive and library communities.

Under President Clinton’s policy on classification
and declassification, Podesta said, agencies
opened 400 million pages in the 1996 and 1997
fiscal years. Included were 33,000 pages of
documents on John F. Kennedy’s assassination,
adding to 27,000 previously declassified.
Recently, agencies declassified 4,000 documents on
human rights violations in Guatemala.

As deputy chief of staff until he became the
president’s top aide in November, Podesta
developed legislative and communications
strategies for the White House, including advice
on government information, privacy and
telecommunications security. “In a free society,
the public must have access to information,” he
said. “The government must promote openness.”

But, he said, highly classified information
appears regularly on the front pages of newspapers
without any consideration being given to the harm
this could cause. As an example, he cited a time
in the 1980s when news reports disclosed the
location of missile launch sites in southern Iraq.
When U.S. planes arrived, the Iraqis had switched
to mobile launchers.

For that reason, Podesta said, he wishes
“publishers and editors to consider the cost of
digging out some information.”