ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next tonight, is too much information kept secret by the U.S. government? Some of the documents from the National Archives revealing the extent of Switzerland's use of Nazi gold became available to researchers only last year. Before that, they were classified, or top secret, as we just heard. We have a debate on government secrecy but first some background.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Consider some of Washington's landmarks. What do they have in common besides their status as tourist attractions? They are repositories of millions of secrets--old ones from Cold War days and new secrets too--as every minute some document or study or letter is stamped confidential, secret or top secret, or even more secret than that.
Confidentiality is as old as government, but it became more institutionalized during World War II and the Cold War, especially with the coming of the atomic age. There is no one law that covers what should be classified. Every President since World War II, with the exception of John Kennedy, has issued his own secrecy rules. The result: millions of newly classified documents each year.
And some 1.5 billion pages of government documents more than 25 years old remain classified. President Clinton mandated automatic declassification of most of those old documents in an executive order that took effect last year; but so far only about 10 percent have been. And, in March, a federal commission on government secrecy said the Pentagon has largely ignored the President's order, as has the CIA. Yesterday, CIA Director-Designate George Tenet vowed to comply.
GEORGE TENET: It is time for us to better distinguish that information which really ought to be kept secret from information that ought to be made available to the American public.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The bipartisan Federal Commission on Secrecy is headed by New York Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In its recently released report, the commission recommended secrecy be returned to its limited but necessary role. Information can better be protected, the report said, if secrecy is reduced overall.
The commission also recommended that Congress enact a law that would: establish the principles for what may be declared secret; require the declassification of all information after 30 years unless disclosure would harm an individual or vital government activities; and require officials to weigh the benefits of secrecy against the cost of releasing information to the public. Today, the authors of that report went before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to urge that Congress act on those recommendations.
REP. LEE HAMILTON, (D) Indiana: We recommend a whole new approach to the business of classifying information. We think the key decision is made at the point of classification. That's where too many things get classified today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A member of the commission recognized its proposals may be controversial.
REP. LARRY COMBEST, (R) Texas: All portions or none of these recommendations may be adopted. They will not be without controversy or opposition, but I would suggest that we carefully examine the basis for opposition to see if it is based on sound judgment or on turf.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A witness who has written about the CIA, David Wise, warned against legislation that could affect freedom of the press.
DAVID WISE, Author/Journalist: The statute could lead down the road to criminalizing news stories and prosecuting reporters and writers, although I'm sure that is the opposite of the commission's intent.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Legislation to set the rules on government secrecy was introduced in Congress today.