Issue 66, Summer 1997

Groups and individuals have long campaigned against overzealous government classification of documents in the name of “national security,” for impeding the interchange of ideas about government actions and policies that are necessary to a democratic society. Vital records that should never have been kept secret and many that should have been declassified long ago — particularly those regarding cold war covert operations—have not been made public. And, as we have recently learned, many CIA documents have been destroyed, preventing us from having a true view of our own history.

Now Senator Daniel P. Moynihan has revealed that in 1995 alone — long after the end of the cold war — the U.S. government classified 400,000 documents as “Top Secret,” meaning that their disclosure would cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” The cost to taxpayers of “protecting” these records is more than $5 billion a year. The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy which Moynihan chaired, found that bureaucracy is the root of the problem.

A bipartisan group including Senators Moynihan and Jesse Helms, has introduced The Government Secrecy Act of 1997. Until now, except for nuclear secrets, the executive branch has had the sole responsibility for regulation of government information. The new legislation would establish an interagency board to govern the classification and reclassification of documents, holding administrators accountable for secrecy designations. Classified records would be reassessed after 10 years and again at 30 years. “We are not proposing putting an end to secrecy,” Moynihan said. “It is at times terribly necessary and used for the most legitimate reasons. But secrecy need not remain the only norm. We must develop a competing culture of openness, fully consistent with our interests in protecting national security, but in which power is no longer derived from one’s ability to withhold information.”