TOPICS > Politics

Open Files, Open Society

May 7, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now for more on this we turn to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat from New York, who was the chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, and James Woolsey, director of the CIA in the first two years of the Clinton administration and now a lawyer here in Washington. Thank you both for being with us. Senator, how important is this? How dangerous is the current system of classifying and declassifying secrets?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, (D) New York: The danger comes in the mistakes you make by not opening up decisions to the argumentation and exchange of views that open societies should have. I think Jim Woolsey, who’s been director of federal intelligence, assistant secretary of the navy, undersecretary of the navy, will recognize this.

The large fact about our intelligence system of the post–the Cold War era is that it completely failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Stanfield Turner, Adm. Turner, one of the distinguished predecessors, wrote in 1990, he said, “We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure.” The corporate view missed by a mile. Now, what is the point of acquiring all these pages and documents and such if in the end you miss the most important assignment you have and we think that in many important ways secrecy can be an impediment to intelligence, which doesn’t really mean you don’t need secrecy, but too much about certain kinds of central issues will mislead you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it’s really important for national security, in your view.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To open up, right. What do you think about that, Mr. Woolsey?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY, Former CIA Director: I have two very different reactions. First of all, let me pay Sen. Moynihan, the chairman of this commission, a compliment. This is a sound, well-written report. It points in a positive direction towards balancing the needs of secrecy and the needs of openness for the future and particularly in its last chapter on information, security–information system insecurity.

It does an excellent job of beginning to come to terms with some of the serious problems of the future. Dealing with paper is sort of the past. The future is electrons. And this report breaks some new ground in pointing a direction towards how one could begin to deal with this very tough problem. As the Senator knows, with respect to his and Stan Turner’s view of the CIA’s performance during the Cold War, I’m in pretty much total disagreement. By the way, what he said is not in the report. But that’s another subject.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But do you disagree with his contention that an open–a more open system would actually be better for national security?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: I think that a more open system with respect to policy is a good idea. During the Reagan administration it was pretty well known that Sec. Schultz of State of Sec. Weinberger of Defense disagreed on a large number of things, and most of those disagreements were sort of out in the public in one way or another, didn’t harm the United States security, meant for a more informed public, went to a more informed public.

Some administration try to keep there from being any leakage of any policy disagreements, and normally, I think that just stifles debate. But with respect to intelligence sources and methods this report is really quite good. It talks about the extreme importance of protecting intelligence sources and methods and gives the director of Central Intelligence the authority to not have this central office which the report talks about doing declassification, be given all very sensitive documents. I think it’s a balanced report, and I think on that issue it points away toward a very positive way to deal with these situations.


SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: Could I just give you our central proposition, which is that secrecy is a form of government regulation. It tells you what you may know. And we’ve been dealing with this question of regulation through most of this century. And in the 1930’s we began to get law professors and started asking, what are these public regulations, these New Deal agencies are issuing, are they laws, and if Congress didn’t pass them, what began in 1935, the Federal Register, which was printed.

In 1946, we established the Administrative Procedures Act, and there are means of discovery and litigation and adjudication. We have no system toward this enormously vast world of creative–of the regulation of what the public may know. In the last year we created 400,000 top secret documents. But now let me tell you something. Can I tell you a secret? Because we keep track each year on the number of confidential, secret, and top secret documents we create. But those aren’t the real ones. The real secrets are higher than that, but I haven’t–I have to tell you that their names are classified.


SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: The names are classified. We don’t even know–it’s a secret–what that designation is.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you make available some of these secrets to citizens? How do you deregulate so that citizens can see them but not make too much available to enemies of the United States?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: Well, first of all, in terms of the present situation, most of the information we need is in the public sector. Ask George Shultz. Ask Jim Woolsey.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean, if you’re an enemy?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: It’s us–our analysis or anybody’s analysis, it’s all there. You’re on the Web. But the past–I thought Amb. Eistenstadt did a beautiful job tonight, and he used a phrase which I think is very important. He said, enabling people to come to terms with their own history. Now, we have a billion and a half documents, classified, from that time.

The ones who heard they–it was in the archives–the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency had them from previous organizations. And we haven’t opened up. We’re learning about the history of Communist espionage in this country, for example, up until recently, from archives in Moscow. Now, the National Security Agency has come out and given us these wonderful encryptions, but we can open up so much more.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You don’t disagree with that, do you, that we need to open up quite a bit more, or do you?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: I agree with that. Let me give you an example of the way this has been happening. Both my predecessor as director of Central Intelligence, Bob Gates, and I, declassified virtually all of the national estimates dealing with the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union, after all, by 1991 was gone. And so it was quite possible with very few exceptions to let the scholarly community and the academic community, journalists, whoever wanted, they could do so now, review a lot of the documents which led to the national assessments about the Soviet Union that the Senator was talking about at the beginning. I would suggest that any fair assessment of that would indicate that CIA and the U.S. intelligence community did a very good job on the Soviet military capability.


R. JAMES WOOLSEY: –did an extremely good job on political stresses, did a poor job on estimating overall levels of Gross National Product, which Sen. Moynihan has called attention to. But overall, as an article about a year ago in the National Interest Magazine indicates, the CIA has indicated, did a very good job.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But should be released? Do you think a lot should be released, or are you worried too much will be now declassified?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, less than a third, according to this report, of the documents that are classified are classified by CIA. The vast majority are classified by the Department of Defense, and there are a number of documents with respect to policy and older defense programs that clearly could easily be declassified. The report makes a very clear exception for protecting intelligence sources and methods. That’s the role of the director of Central Intelligence. I’m glad to see the report does that. That sort of thing generally needs to stay secret.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, what next? You introduced legislation today. How would this new–if Congress passes a bill–which would decide how to classify and how to declassify it, who would make that decision? How would it work?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: Well, this was a unanimous report.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And a bipartisan commission.

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: Bipartisan. House and Senate introduced the same bill today. The President has said he thinks something should be done. What we hope for is a culture of openness in our government about which I want to say one thing with great seriousness. A majority of American people think the Central Intelligence Agency was involved with the assassination of President Kennedy. Now, that is outrageous.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you think secrecy contributes to this?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: You get conspiracy theories when you can’t say here, read. I mean, you know, I have a disagreement about the CIA made. We will settle it, or others will, because the documents are open. He opened them and let them go over and write their own books about it. But we have in an assassination records commission which sort of gives out a document of leak–something. And you go to the movies and you find the CIA did it, and oh, my God–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you want that opened?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: I think the Senator is quite right about this. This process does take much too long. Let me tell you one of the reasons it takes a long time, particularly with respect to intelligence documents. The United States has sharing agreements with lots of countries around the world and in intelligence. And whatever we think about our own ability to excise sources and methods and just produce substance, our friends in other countries may say, we gave you that 30 years ago; we don’t really want that turned loose. So one of the reasons why a lot of these documents come out with a lot of things blacked out on them is not so much American judgment about substance as it is protecting relationships with other countries that have shared things with us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Senator, we just have about a minute left. How would it work under your bill?

SEN. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: We would hope to have a declassification center probably at the National Archives in which professionals would do this work, sensitive, just the things Jim talked about, but also sensitive–if you don’t get some things out, it gets worse and then you have a real problem. As Stu Eistenstadt said today, you can really–there’s a release that comes from saying, oh, all right, that happened; we can now live with it; we’re not going to deny it. And if some of our allies get embarrassed once in a while, you know, that’s their hard luck. They exist because we’ve made them allies.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator and Mr. Woolsey, thanks for being with us.