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Steven Aftergood sounded the depths of government secrecy in the fall of 1991 with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking the National Archives to identify the oldest document in its possession that was still classified. Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) Project on Secrecy and Government, was startled when the archives informed him that it had a classified report predating American involvement in World War I.

Aftergood immediately filed a second FOIA request for the document’s declassification.

“It took an additional eight months before I got it,” he says.

The 1917 report, written by an official at the U.S. Embassy in Holland, analyzed the intelligence-gathering potential of the participants in WWI and recommended steps for establishing U.S. intelligence operations should the nation become heavily involved in the war. Outlining cloak-and-dagger espionage techniques that would make Mata Hari proud, it explained how to enclose coded messages in skeleton keys and how to track German resupply efforts by watching “trains moving to and fro along the front and from the different bases of the enemy.”

There are fewer national security revelations in the report, now 75 years old, than one can find in a Tom Clancy novel. It contains no references to modern intelligence techniques or technologies, and it’s hard to imagine that the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires still pose any threat to America. The Soviet Union was born, lived, and died within the period of the report’s classification. American secrecy guidelines classify items as “confidential,” “secret,” or “top secret” if they could cause “damage,” “serious damage,” or “exceptionally grave damage” to national security, but as Aftergood points out, no actual threat kept this obscure document from being released.

“I think it was obsolete within 10 years of its being written. The remarkable thing was that it was reviewed in 1976—60 years after the fact. They looked at the title, which said, “intelligence,’ and that was it. Classified forever.”

If the secrecy bureaucracy’s treatment of this document sounds like a fluke, think again. There are 23,500 pages of classified material at the National Archives that predate World War II, and 300 million pages that predate 1960. The rate at which the government has classified materials has probably escalated over the past 40 years (although it decreased 11 percent last year compared to 1991). The 6.3 million classifications in 1992 far exceeded the number of declassifications.

Secrecy regulations are based not on law but on executive orders that reflect the passion for secrecy of the current president. Under President Jimmy Carter, information could not be classified unless its potential damage to national security was “identifiable.” Officials could not classify scientific information unless it was clearly related to national security, and other information was subject to a “balancing test,” under which even classified material could be disclosed if there was a substantial public interest in it. Carter’s executive order also mandated a declassification schedule that would have automatically freed most classified material after six years, but this provision was never effectively implemented.

As Aftergood wrote in Issues in Science and Technology, President Ronald Reagan’s 1992 Executive Order 12356 “eliminated the Carter-era threshold of identifiable damage, eliminated the balancing test, deleted the prohibition on withholding scientific information, and curtailed systematic declassification review….The Reagan order makes it plain that, when in doubt, information is to be classified. And if there is a question about the level of classification, the higher level is to be adopted.” Reagan’s executive order likewise eliminated Carter’s automatic declassification schedule. The ease of classification under the Reagan order prompted the massive recent growth of the classified archive.

The true volume of the classified archive is a mystery even to those responsible for it. What’s known is that it’s huge (it holds billions of pages), ever-growing, and totally out of control.

At its most benign, government secrecy produces a paperwork nightmare that costs the taxpayer and interferes with the work of historians. But the obsession with secrecy also has a perilous side. Under special access or “black” programs, the U.S. develops weapons systems whose very existence it classifies and whose merits are thus never debated by Congress or the public. The aggregate intelligence budget is likewise classified, though it can be deduced by subtracting unclassified line items from the overall budget. Moreover, under current secrecy regulations, the government can actively disseminate false information about weapons capability for media and public consumption. For example, the New York Times recently alleged that Strategic Defense Initiative tests were rigged to make the program appear more viable than it was. The government also places “holds” on private patents when it decides the new technology has national security implications. Such “holds” forbid scientists from publishing, selling, or even discussing their work.

Advocates of greater openness like FAS’s Aftergood argue that secrecy of this magnitude poses constitutional problems and damages scientific debate, policy development, and the intelligence apparatus itself. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Capitol Hill’s most consistent advocate of secrecy reform, argued in a 1992 National Interest article that the president “could do no greater service to the nation and to his administration than to set about an energetic, determined, public dismantling of the secrecy system.” Inveterate cold warrior and inventor of the hydrogen bomb Edward Teller concurs: “Our keeping of secrets has often misled and confused our own people but has been ineffective in denying information to our enemies or competitors.” Reform of government secrecy laws now unites a disparate coalition of civil libertarians, science- and space-policy experts, members of Congress from both parties, and, since January, the president himself.

Even advocates of the current classification standard concede that mounds of information whose release would pose no threat to national security are being withheld from the public. By its own admission, the government produces the secrecy stockpile by classifying 19,000 items per day, and each page must be individually reviewed before it can be declassified. Since the manpower assigned to declassifying documents can only review one-third the number of documents that the entire government classifies daily, the secret archive grows bigger and bigger. Defenders of the status quo argue that here in lies the problem. In their view, it is declassification review that needs to be fixed, not the broader secrecy system.

Secrecy’s critics object not only to declassification but to what they describe as a classification reflex that results in mountains of unjustified secrecy. As Robert Steele, openness advocate and former deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Center, said before the Presidential Inter-Agency Task Force on National Security Information: “It has been my experience that employees of the various intelligence organizations routinely classify everything they collect, everything they write. This is in part because there are severe penalties for underclassifying information and there are no penalties for over-classification, even if over-classification is against the public interest.”

“The classification system originated with a specific perceived threat. Over the years, however, it has evolved into a largely habitual and mindless institution,” says Aftergood. Steele describes the classification reflex as almost pathological. The sensitive agencies, he told the task force, “have taken it upon themselves to define everything they do, everything about them to be vital to national security, and they…classify everything about themselves, their operations, and their products, without regard to the definitions established by the president.”

Classification is routinely used to prevent politically embarrassing information from leaking to the press, alleges critics. As Rodley B. McDaniel, former executive secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), explained to a Harvard seminar, “There are two uses to which security classification is put: the legitimate desire to protect secrets, and protection of bureaucratic turf. As a practitioner of the real world, it’s about 90 [percent] bureaucratic turf; 10 [percent] legitimate protection of secrets, as far as I’m concerned.”

Nowhere has government secrecy more obviously run amok than at the Groom Lake Air Force Base in the Nevadadesert. The base served as the testing ground for many of America’s most advanced air weaponry, including both the Stealth fighter and bomber. Aviation writer Bill Sweetman calls Groom Lake “the Edwards [Air Force Base] of the “black’ world.” Yet the base officially does not exist, and the military has seized almost all the land within sight of it to prevent civilians from catching glimpses of what goes on there, giving rise to loony theories that the site is actually a testing ground for UFOs captured by the military.

Among aerospace experts, current speculation about goings-on at Groom Lake centers around a hypothetical Mach 8 spy plane called Aurora (see “In Plane Sight?,” Washington City Paper, 7/3/92). The Air Force vigorously denies the plane’s existence, and the evidence supporting it is still inconclusive. It isn’t, however, easily dismissible. Bill Sweetman, who has been published in Jane’s Defense Weekly and has written a book about the plane, explains that Groom Lake “last served as a test site for the [Stealth fighter] F-117 in 1983. Since then, the base has been expanded and ninety-thousand acres have been closed, apparently to create a greater visual buffer….Conclusions: The base is still active and something’s being hidden. The only reason would be a secret aircraft different from those we already know about.”

Sweetman further points to unexplained and powerful sonic booms in California, visual sightings in Nevada and in Holland, and the peculiar retirement of the SR-71 spy plane despite congressional protests. If Aurora does exist, it represents a huge spending program kept secret from Congress (but not oversight committees) at a time when the federal belt is being tightened. Aftergood is intrigued by Sweetman’s evidence but is not yet persuaded: “I think we’re ready, even eager, to be convinced, but news reports of individual sightings just aren’t persuasive.” Aftergood hastens to add, however, that he has “no doubt that something’s going on at Groom Lake. The security measures are so extravagant that something must be going on.”

Extravagant is right. The alleged UFO and Aurora sightings at Groom Lake have made “Area 51,” as the restricted zone is known, a gathering spot for UFO watchers, aviation buffs, and aerospace experts like Sweetman. While the military commandeered most of the land around Groom Lake in 1983, it missed two hills, and civilians often trek up them to look at the base. Glenn Cambell, author of the “Area 51” Viewer’s Guide, describes the security personnel near the restricted zone as “anonymous, well-armed chaps who will admit only to working for a “civilian entity’….The military, in turn, denies they exist….To put it bluntly, they can kill you….The signs at the border say “Use of Deadly Force Authorized,’ and you should believe it.” The military recently wearied of the UFO- and Aurora-watchers and is now attempting to seize the two remaining vantage points. Groom Lake could soon be entirely invisible to the public.

Even one internal investigation has concluded that the government abuses the principle of “blackness.” Take the case of Timberwind, a black program to develop a nuclear-powered rocket. Timberwind’s existence was widely speculated upon and was finally leaked to Aftergood, who filed a complaint with the Department of Defense (DoD) inspector general that the program was not sufficiently important to national security to warrant black status. Defense’s inspector general found in Aftergood’s favor: “The decision to protect…development of a nuclear propulsion technology within a special access [black] program was questionable. SDIO [Strategic Defense Initiative Organization] did not adequately justify why the existing control system…was not sufficient to protect the development of the technology….The DoD initiated the program in secrecy, limiting open discussion and debate on the feasibility of using this technology,…its cost, and other applications of the nuclear propulsion technology.”

A science policy and disarmament organization with nationally recognized expertise in space policy, FAS approaches the problem of government secrecy with an understandable stress on secrecy’s cost to scientific exchange and defense policy. To FAS, reform of the secrecy machine is a policy issue first and a civil libertarian issue second. “Government secrecy fosters a kind of pathology in political discourse,” says Aftergood. “The clearest manifestation of that is conspiracy theories on all sorts of issues from the POW/MIAs to the UFOs and the Kennedy assassination.” Aftergood wonders how the public and Congress can adequately debate the need for weapons systems they’re unaware of.

Other groups, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Security Archive in particular, argue for reform from a more strictly civil libertarian standpoint. The National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization that collects and annotates declassified government documents, won fame earlier this year when it successfully went to court to prevent the Bush administration from deleting computer files as it left office. “Openness is the public interest,” says Gary Stern of the ACLU’s Center for National Security Studies. “Access to what the government does is the public interest.”

“Any classification decision must be balanced against the public interest in the information,” says Stern. “Sometimes, there is a presumptive threat to national security and no public interest.” Stern and the ACLU concede that there is no automatic public interest in the names of actual intelligence sources or in codes. “There might be a public interest in ongoing diplomatic negotiations, but it is overridden by necessity. There is no public interest in the details of nuclear weapons technology, but there is in what weapons systems are being developed. The public has a right to know how our tax dollars are being spent without knowing the technical details of the systems.”

Robert Steele, now head of an organization called Open Source Solutions Inc., argues that secrecy harms the intelligence-gathering process itself. Aside from the excessive financial cost and widespread abuses, he points out that secrecy often blocks policy-makers who have the necessary clearances from obtaining quick access to the intelligence they need. Unclassified material, he adds, is frequently withheld from Congress and the public by embedding it in the “cement overcoat” of classified reports.

Steele’s remedy for intelligence arteriosclerosis is heavier reliance on unclassified, or open, sources.

“There are unquestionably some things that must always be done by sensitive technical means or can only be obtained through clandestine collection,” he testified before the Presidential Inter-Agency Task Force on National Security Information, “but on balance I believe that between 75 percent and 80 percent of our national policy-makers’ intelligence needs…can be satisfied with unclassified intelligence which is vastly faster to get and cheaper to process, and has the two additional advantages of being risk-free, and eminently suitable for dissemination to Congress, the press, and the public.”

In his National Interest article, Moynihan compares high-cost, classified intelligence to information contained in open sources: “By the end of the 1970s…I had reached a judgment. Which was that the Soviet Union was about to collapse; that it would break up along ethnic lines.” In 1979, Moyhihan had argued that “the Soviet Union is a seriously troubled, even sick society….The defining event of the decade might well be the breakup of the Soviet Empire.” And in 1984, he had suggested, “Our grand strategy should be to wait out the Soviet Union; its time is passing.”

Depending solely on open sources, Moynihan had produced stronger analysis than had the CIA, which relied on expensive classified material and churned out highly political, often misleading, intelligence. This was intelligence that spurred the great military buildup, more intelligence spending, and, of course, increased secrecy. (For example, a 1985 CIA report concluded that East German per capita income was outpacing West German.) The deterioration of the Soviets, Moynihan claims, “was knowable then. It wasn’t hard to figure out. But no one could hear. The secrecy system dulled the senses. It cut off criticism.”

Though much of the intelligence establishment opposes reform, the end of the Cold War and the advent of the Clinton administration have trumped their objections. Even the CIA is now gung-ho for reform. Says CIA spokesman David Christian, “There’s a lot of organizational inertia and a lot of room for reform. And I say that as someone from within the security system for 26 years. Reform of the classification system is an idea whose time has come. I’ve never seen this much momentum behind reform before.”

“There are lots of people who oppose reform, but they’re not very bright,” says David Whipple, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

One articulate opponent of reform is Michael Levin, a National Intelligence Medal winner and 46-year veteran of the National Security Agency (NSA).

“There’s nothing really wrong with the current system,” he says. “The major trouble is that there is no systematic declassification review…so classified material is building up. There’s no oversight. It’s like a car that you never tune up or oil. There’s nothing wrong with the car.” Levin fervently denies that agencies classify materials to protect their budgets. “That’s absolutely not true,” he says. “I’m not aware of any occasion where documents have been classified to protect turf. I’m aware of incidents where documents have been erroneously classified and no supervisor was around. That happens a lot…but that’s why we need better oversight.”

FAS’s Aftergood dismisses Levin’s take on secrecy: “The intelligence budget isn’t still classified because of lack of oversight. It’s classified precisely for turf reasons. If people knew how big it was, they wouldn’t support it.”

Years in intelligence work, says Aftergood, leave many national security professionals with the belief “that there’s no such thing as too much secrecy and that they don’t have any responsibility to change that.”

Is anybody listening? Congress has not directly asserted itself in the dispute by demanding openness, though secrecy in defense and intelligence appropriations severely infringes on Congress’ constitutional authority over the budget. Congress could legislate more liberal secrecy regulations, but Aftergood admits that legislation is mostly a good theoretical idea.

“In practice,” he cautions, “it’s overwhelmingly difficult, because Congress has assumed a supine position toward the executive branch with regard to national security….They’ve surrendered their role in the decision-making process.” Generally, members of Congress are more interested in calling for declassification of documents related to high-profile issues like the Kennedy assassination and POW/MIAs than in pushing for systemic change.

Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) recently proved an exception, when he wrote provisions in the appropriations bills “to ensure that overclassification is no longer simply “built into agency budgets.’ ” As Skaggs explained in the House, the legislation “will require reports detailing the cost and number of personnel involved in classifying information and keeping information classified. The agencies are also required to set specific expenditure-reduction goals for handling classified information in fiscal year 1995.”

The main intragovernment impetus for reform is coming from Bill Clinton, who has appointed two commissions to get the ball rolling. The Presidential Inter-Agency Task Force on National Security Information is responsible for drafting a new executive order on classification and declassification. Its report was submitted on Veterans Day, but its recommendations, ironically enough, have not yet been made public. The Joint Security Commission, a collaborative project by the CIA and the DoD, is responsible for reviewing all security procedures at defense and intelligence agencies. Its report is due in February. While predicting quick government action can be hazardous, we can probably expect Clinton to issue a new executive order covering secrecy sometime soon.

FAS has its own proposals for secrecy standards. “There should be a few specific categories of classified material: details of weapons design and performance, identities of intelligence officers, details of intelligence technology systems, details of ongoing diplomatic negotiations, and operational details in the course of ongoing military engagements,” says Aftergood. FAS wants to establish a maximum classification lifetime that would discharge the backlog of restricted material; the elimination of secret budgets and active deception; and automatic declassification of all newly classified documents after five years.

“There will always be some limited exemptions from the rule, allowing a senior official to say that something needs to be protected for a longer period of time,” Aftergood acknowledges. He insists, however, that automatic declassification should be the rule of thumb.

The administration’s willingness to curtail its own power by meeting such an openness bottom-line was revealed in an early draft of the new executive order, which was leaked to Aftergood.

He was quite pleased with certain of its provisions, writing in an October position paper “the return to the former framework of automatic declassification schedules and maximum classification lifetimes, and the introduction of some important innovations in administration and enforcement, should eliminate many of the most egregious defects of the present system.” Aftergood was less pleased with other provisions: the 40-year maximum classification lifetime, the systematic declassification review, the provisions allowing easy reclassification, and the failure to reform special access rules.

But he remains cautiously hopeful.

“I think the final draft will be better,” he says. “My impression is that the upper levels of the administration want to be able to claim with a straight face that this is both an innovation and an improvement.”

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.