Statement of Senator Jesse Helms

Hearing before the

Government Secrecy

Wednesday, May 7, 1997

I thank this Committee and its distinguished chairman for inviting me to testify here this morning. You are well aware, of course, that the Secrecy Commission, led by Chairman Moynihan and Vice Chairman Combest, achieved a unified report of recommendations-- a feat that should not be underrated, especially in Washington.

The Commission, by law, had the twin goals of studying how to protect important government secrets and simultaneously reducing the amount of classified documents and materials. All commissioners began their deliberations with the premise that government secrecy is a form of regulation that, like all regulations, should be used sparingly, and certainly never for the goal of keeping the truth from the American people. Commissioners also began the process recognizing that over-classification can actually weaken the protections of those secrets that truly are in our national interest.

All the same, Mr. Chairman, I am obliged to begin with a reiteration of the obvious-- that the protection of true national security information remains vital to the well-being and security of the United States. The end of the Cold War notwithstanding, the United States continues to face serious and long-term threats from a variety of fronts. While communist and anti-American regimes, such as North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Iraq, continue to wage a war of espionage against the United States, new threats have arisen as well.

Most alarming, perhaps, is the growing trend of espionage conducted not by our enemies but by American allies. Such espionage is on the rise especially against U.S. economic secrets. According to a February 1996 report by GAO, classified military information and sensitive military technologies are high priority targets for the intelligence agencies of U.S. allies.

At first blush, a push to reduce government secrecy may seem at odds with these increasing threats. I am convinced it is not. The sheer volume of government "secrets" -- and their cost to the taxpayers and U.S. business -- is staggering. In 1996 the taxpayers spent more than $5.2 billion to protect classified information. We know all too well from our own experiences that when everything is secret nothing is secret.

Secrecy all too often then becomes a political tool used by Executive Branch agencies to shield information which may be politically sensitive or policies which may be unpopular with the American public. Worse yet, information may be classified to hide from public view illegal or unethical activity. On numerous occasions I, and other Members of Congress, have found the Executive Branch to be reluctant to share certain information, the nature of which is not truly a "national secret," but which would be potentially politically embarrassing to officials in the Executive Branch or which would make known an illegal or indefensible policy.

I have also found that one of the largest impediments to openness is the perverse incentives of the government bureaucracy itself in favor of classification, and the lack of accountability for those who do the actual classification. I strongly endorse the Commission's recommendation of adding individual accountability to the process by requiring original and derivative classifiers to actually identify themselves and include within the documents a justification of the decision to classify.

The only way to change a bureaucracy is to reverse the incentive to classify. A good example of how to change this lack of bureaucratic accountability is a provision contained in H.R. 3121 -- legislation which we approved in the Foreign Relations Committee last year that was signed into law. Previously, details on U.S. commercial arms sales to foreign governments were not made available to the public unless a citizen requested that the State Department make it public. The incentive therefore was to keep the information closely regulated. H.R. 3121 provides that all arms sales will be made public unless the President determines that the release of the information is contrary to U.S. national security interests. Although this may appear to be a small nuance, the bureaucratic incentive is changed enormously to favor openness. Shifting the burden in this way can introduce more openness into the system and force the bureaucracy to identify true national security threats.

I am convince, however, that the single most important recommendation of our Commission that your Committee should focus on is the concept of creating a "life cycle" for secrets. This means that all information, classified and unclassified alike, has a life span in which decisions must be made regarding creation, management, and use. This kind of rationalization would shift the burden to favor openness and reduce some of the costs associated with declassification.

I would add a note of caution to the Commission's work on declassification, however. In the course of the two years of its work, the Commission became very interested in the declassification of existing documents and materials. In a perfect world, if information remains relevant to true U.S. national interests it should remain classified indefinitely. Information that does not compromise U.S. interests and sources should be made public. We all realize, however, that this is a tremendously costly venture. In fact, the Commission was unable to come up with solid data on the true cost of declassification.

In this era when Congress has finally begun to grasp the essential need to reduce government spending and balance the budget, the issue of balancing costs and benefits is an essential one. The financial costs to the American taxpayers must be balanced against the necessity of the declassification. The real lesson to take from the work of this Commission is the need to redress for the future the problems of over classification and a systematic process for declassification, so that the costs and timeliness of declassification does not pose the same economic and regulatory burdens on future generations. At the same time, it may be too costly to declassify all of the countless classified documents now in existence.

With this caveat in mind, I hope your Committee will focus on bringing government wide rationalization to the classification process. It is an area where tough oversight is long overdue and I commend you for your efforts to review this issue.