CNI News thanks Sheldon Wernikoff for forwarding this story from the San Jose Mercury News of Tuesday, April 18, 1995
By Douglas Jehl
New York Times
WASHINGTON -- President Clinton signed an executive order Monday overhauling government secrecy rules and requiring, with certain exceptions,that even the most highly classified documents be made public after 25 years.
The directive, issued after two years of debate within the administration, establishes the least secretive policy on government records since the beginning of the Cold War. It would allow the head of an agency,like the director of Central Intelligence, to exempt some documents, but only with the approval of an appeals panel.
The current rules, established in 1947 and last refined by the Reagan administration, have allowed vast vaults of documents to be kept classified even beyond the 30-year period after which they must be surrendered to the National Archives.
Monday, Clinton promised that his order would "lift the veil" on millions of those documents and keep many new documents from being classified in the first place.
But he left little doubt that the new rules, spelled out in a 25-page directive, would still allow the government to protect the most sensitive of documents from public disclosure.
In a statement, he said the new policy would "maintain the necessary controls over information that legitimately needs to be guarded in the interests of national security."
Administration officials conceded that the new policy was less open than one the National Security Council proposed a year ago. They said the version reflected White House efforts to accommodate complaints of officials at the CIA, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and elsewhere, who have argued vigorously that the automatic release of certain documents would be foolhardy.
The administration officials said it was impossible to say precisely how many documents might ultimately be exempted from Clinton's order, which is to take effect over the next five years. They said that would depend in part on how vigorously the CIA and others strive to protect their secrets.
But the officials said Monday's step will require that the vast majority of national security documents be subject to automatic disclosure. When they take full effect at the turn of the century, the new rules will have made available all but exempted information from 1975 and earlier, including millions of pages related to the Vietnam War.
Steven Aftergood, who directs a project on government secrecy for the Federation of Independent Scientists, described Clinton's directive Monday as representing "a distinct improvement over the current system."
But Aftergood, a leading advocate of greater openness, argued that the new rules would still permit the intelligence agencies to keep unnecessary secrets.
Nothing in Clinton's order will force the government to make public the size of the intelligence budget, Aftergood noted, even though it is common knowledge in the capital.
Administration officials said Monday's directive would allow the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the defense secretary and other agency heads to protect any document that revealed information from at least one of nine specified categories, including the identities of human intelligence sources and the details of U.S. war plans still in effect.
SECURITY VS. PUBLIC INTEREST
But the order requires that all such exemptions be reviewed by an Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which would have the power to deny or amend all exemptions. It also authorized government employees to make public even documents eligible for protection if they decide that the public interest outweighs national security concerns.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry conceded that the overhaul might not satisfy some historians who have been pressing for swifter and more complete access to government documents. But he and the president both portrayed the step as striking an appropriate balance.
Saying that the administration would no longer "tolerate the excesses of the current system," Clinton said in his statement that he regarded the directive as a step that would bring secrecy rules "into line with our vision of American democracy in the post-Cold War world."
Clinton first promised an overhaul in April 1993, shortly after he took office. But the process proved more controversial than he or his aides expected as the CIA and other agencies fought to made it less restrictive while members of Congress put forward proposals of their own.
Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement making clear that he shared Clinton's concern that too much information has been kept secret through over-classification.
But Specter indicated that he was reserving judgment on Clinton's solution, saying that the intelligence committee would follow closely the implementation of the directive to determine whether further steps were needed.
Clinton's order reverses current policy by directing government officials to err on the side of openness when weighing whether a document should be classified in the first place. It would also require the officials to justify their decisions to designate a document as secret.
But the president elected to maintain the current system of four separate categories of classification, even though members of Congress have proposed that they be narrowed to secret and top secret.
At the same time, a senior administration official was frank in conceding that several exemptions from the 25-year disclosure requirement had been added to satisfy particular government agencies.
Among them is a provision drafted by the National Security Agency that would protect documents that "reveal information that would impair U.S. cryptologic systems or activities."
Original file name: .CNI - Declassify?
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