WASHINGTON (March 4, 1997) - Far too many government documents are stamped 'secret' in a legacy of the Cold War that deprives the public and even policy-makers of vital information, a congressional commission said today.
The panel, headed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., decried the "culture of secrecy" that pervades the government. It said information should be classified only when it is necessary to protect national security.
Classification should be kept to "an absolute minimum," said the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy.
The commission, which spent two years studying the problem, said all this secrecy is actually a little understood form of government regulation.
"Americans are familiar with the tendency to overregulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of regulation," said the commission, which found that 2 million federal officials and 1 million in industries working with the government have authority to keep documents and data secret.
Moynihan, at a briefing for reporters, said the culture of secrecy has outlived the Cold War. He called it a problem endemic to bureaucracies, not just the result of anti-Soviet paranoia.
"You see secrecy spreading all across our government to places where it has no business being," he said. "There is no department in the government that doesn't have an intelligence branch, and they're all stamping things secret."
Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and vice chairman of the commission, said, "It's easier to classify. Then you don't have to deal with it."
But Combest cautioned that secrecy still has its place. When national security is at stake, "if we're going to err, it's err on the secrecy side," he said.
The commission, which also included Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., was unanimous in its recommendations.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the lawmakers briefed President Clinton on Monday on their recommendations. Making information more accessible and open "is something many of us here believe is important," McCurry said.
The commission said the all-too-frequent 'leaks' of official secrets by government functionaries tend to degrade public service by "giving a huge advantage to the least scrupulous players."
Millions of documents are needlessly classified each year, it said, forcing the government to spend billions of dollars each year to keep from the American people information that should be public.
Frequently, the report said, material is classified to hide political information, not secrets. And sometimes the secrecy system can become so constrictive that information is withheld even from decision-makers.
The commission recommended legislation defining what should be kept classified and creation of a National Declassification Center to oversee federal policy on official secrets.
"A culture of openness will never develop within government until the present culture of secrecy is restrained by statute," said Moynihan.
The study now goes to the Senate and House intelligence committees for consideration.
The Defense Department produces 53 percent of the classified documents and the CIA another 30 percent; the Justice Department produces 10 percent, the State Department and the Energy Department 3 percent each, and all other government agencies are responsible for the remaining 1 percent, the report said.
In November the government said the amount of national security information it declassified and opened to the public reached an all-time high in fiscal 1995, and the number of actions to classify information was at a record low.
Original file name: CNI - Govt Secrecy Criticized
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