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United Press International
November 14, 2000

Clinton's declassification legacy secure; policies may not be

By ELI J. LAKE

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 -- President Bill Clinton has done more than any other president to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds much of the United States' cold war history. And this week's release of some 16,000 documents detailing U.S. involvement in the later years of Augusto Pinochet's military reign in Chile only adds to his legacy on this score.

But with his successor in doubt, so is the future of Clinton's policy of national security sunshine. Primarily at stake are somewhere between 800 million and 1 billion documents from the bowels of Washington's security establishment that are set to be released in Oct. 2001.

In 1995 Clinton issued an executive order requiring his intelligence agencies to allow for the de facto declassification of papers 25 years or older, so long as they did not compromise nuclear secrets, intelligence sources and methods and a host of other security concerns. This was no small order for a military establishment that as recently as 1992 had protected a "secret" memo from 1917 outlining troop movements of European forces in World War I.

But in the last two years this executive order has been nibbled away by Republican-sponsored amendments tucked into the Defense Authorization bill. For example, a provision of that legislation from 1999 requires no documents may be released until a government official certifies that each one will not compromise nuclear secrets.

Steven Aftergood, the Director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, says this amendment "will slow (the declassification process) down like molasses."

"No one will sign their name to a release unless they have conducted at least a cursory and probably a detailed review," he said.

The Defense Authorization bill for 2001, which is expected to pass later this year in the lame duck session of Congress, cuts the declassification budget by nearly half -- to $30 million for the next fiscal year.

"There is a perception among some in Congress that openness has been stressed to the detriment of national security and genuine secrets might have been compromised," Aftergood said.

"There is no particular evidence to support that, but because of that perception Congress has actually acted to slow down the process."

Steven Garfinkel, the director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, said in an interview Tuesday, "If everything were to stop tomorrow (Clinton's) legacy would still be enormous and unprecedented."

He said congressional efforts to curtail declassification "has not been to halt declassification, but to delay it. In many cases these efforts have been unnecessary or overreaching but they don't destroy the program."

And Clinton's legacy on declassification extends beyond his 1995 executive order to release secrets from a quarter century ago.

Over the objections of the Central Intelligence Agency, which actually lobbied Congress in August to block the final release of the Chile papers, Clinton went through with his 1998 promise to open up U.S. books on black ops in Chile between 1973 and 1991. And that step will have bold consequences in Washington and Santiago, with criminal investigations proceeding in both capitals on the crimes associated with Pinochet's regime.

Clinton ordered the release of documents relating to the CIA's support for unsavory military men in El Salvador. After revelations from Richard Nuccio, the State Department official that told then Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., that a CIA asset in Guatemala was responsible for the murder of an U.S. citizen, Clinton released files relating to the agency's Guatemala operations.

Clinton ordered the release of top secret memoranda from the early days of the National Reconnaissance Office -- an agency so clandestine its very existence was a state secret until 1992 -- that show America's planning of the U2 spy plane missions over Russia.

"Bill Clinton will be known as the openness president when it comes to the declassification of history," said Peter Kornbluh, the man who directed the campaign from the private National Security Archives to declassify the Pinochet papers.

But much of Clinton's openness agenda will rely on the next president. In August, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged to assist Argentine Human Rights organizations in finding relevant documents to assist their efforts to find newborns stolen from dissident families between 1975 and 1983 by the military regimes in power at the time. State Department officials say an announcement on the progress in this initiative is expected in the next two to three days.

The 2001 bill to authorize the black budget for the Intelligence community would require the agency to release documents relating to Japanese war crimes in World War II. That bill, which has yet to be signed by the president, also instructs the president to create a panel to advise the intelligence agencies on general declassification procedures.

The fate of all three of these issues will likely be decided by the next president. Many observers expect more of the same if Vice President Al Gore is the winner of the Florida vote recount, but its unclear what the fate of Clinton's declassification policy will be under Republican challenger George W. Bush. But if Gov. Bush is anything like his father, Clinton's policies in this area could be in danger.

It was President George Bush's State Department that released the infamous edition of Foreign Relations of the United States on Iran in the 1950s that made no mention of the CIA's role in the coup that ousted Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953. The volume's publication prompted the historian Warren Cohen to quit the Foreign Relations series' panel of advisers.

Bush also opposed legislation to open up CIA documents relating to the Kennedy assassination.

"If George W. Bush is president, we are unlikely to have a very sympathetic ear for declassification," said Kornbluh, "because his father was head of the CIA and his advisers on these issues tend to be hard liners."

Copyrightę 2000 United Press International




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