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As President and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton claim executive privilege in Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury probe, the Clinton administration has dug in its heels this week in defense of government secrecy on a much bigger front.

The administration is resisting a groundbreaking bill on classification proposed by Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

They want to create an independent office to force the Defense Department, the CIA and other executive branch agencies to release billions of pages of documents they have been hoarding since the start of the Cold War.

Government secrets would be declassified after 10 years unless the agency head certifies to the president continued protection is essential to national security. A national declassification center would arbitrate disputes.

The legislation has won the qualified support of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and appears headed for floor action. But at a hearing Wednesday, Clinton spokesmen warned Congress it was embarking on a dangerous course in trying to draft a law defining what an official secret is.

It is the president -- without any permission from Congress -- who decides what will be classified information. The only exceptions are atomic secrets and documents that deal with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Since 1917, the White House has used executive orders to define what should be secret. And the Justice Department strongly opposes Congress passing any laws defining it, saying the president's powers on the subject are "exclusive."

And at a hearing run by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., officials of the Defense Department and the National Archives Administration used identical words to urge caution.

"Legislating in this area can be perilous, given the great deference traditionally given to the president in the areas of national defense and foreign affairs," said Steven Garfinkel, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, National Archives Administration.

William Leonard, director of Defense Security Programs, used the identical phrase in his testimony.

Under pressure from Moynihan, the executive branch last year reduced the number of officials who could classify documents by a fifth, but the number of documents made secret increased by 67 percent to 5.7 million.

The Federation of American Scientists is a strong supporter of the measure. The director of its project on government secrecy, Steven Aftergood, said Congress has an obligation to pass laws on this subject, "particularly in a way that best serves the national interest."

Jeremy Gunn is in charge of the government's program to deal with the FBI, the CIA and other agencies to pry open records on Kennedy's assassination.

He said "one cannot help but observe a deep-seated, institutional reluctance to release information -- particularly on the part of those institutions that were created for the purposes of collecting secret information and preserving secrets."

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