The culture of secrecy is alive and well on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers appear ready to roll back the rights of Americans to access to the governments secrets from the Cold War.
Under the Clinton administration, the agencies that generated mountains of classified documents over the last 50 years have been ordered to declassify many of the documents for access by citizens. The rules have been that declassified material had to be more than 25 years old.
Some of the material is admittedly controversial -- for example, evidence that some federal agencies disregarded warnings about risks to citizens downwind of nuclear tests. Much of the material is more mundane, but declassification is still subject to a slow and costly process of combing through huge warehouses filled with file cabinets and boxes.
Now, in the wake of a spy scandal at Los Alamos National Laboratory, some senators are pressing the White House to require that all the material declassified so far be re-examined to make sure that sensitive details about the U.S. nuclear arsenal dont slip out.
About 600 million pages have been declassified over the last three years. Even spurred by executive orders, federal agencies are slow to declassify documents, and short of the money and manpower needed to do the work.
Last year, Congress required that material be scanned page by page unless the boxes or file cabinets of papers involved were "highly unlikely" to contain still-classifed nuclear weapons information. In fact, most of the warehouses involved are unlikely to have that information, but the congressional action was intended to block declassification of material in large volume.
Now, buried in the defense authorization act for fiscal 2000 is a provision that would make last years law retroactive. It would require record keepers to re-inspect all the documents declassified since the executive order took effect about three years ago.
"The idea that theyre going to reread material thats already been declassified is preposterous," said Steven Aftergood, an expert in government secrecy. "It will basically cripple the declassification program by driving it in circles."
Americas history is being rewritten as newly declassified material is released on subjects ranging from the Cold War to the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, CIA operations in Chile and other matters elsewhere.
No one is in favor of giving away nuclear weapons files to Chinese, North Koreans, Iraqis or anyone else. But the lesson of declassification in the 1990s is that those sensitive files arent being declassified. What is being told are facts about what American officials did -- and we suspect that makes government nervous.
We hope that the anti-disclosure provisions are removed from the defense bill before it becomes law. It is overkill, and will set back an important effort at widening access to knowledge about government activities.