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Washington Journal: Government Secrecy Questioned

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A new book, entitled "Secrecy," by U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is the latest salvo in an old conflict which is heating up again: How many secrets should the government hold back from its citizenry and for how long.

Moynihan, a Democrat from the U.S. state of New York, argues that few pieces of information deserve the classification "secret," and then not for a long time. He bases his argument on his contention that 95 percent of what the government needs to know about foreign countries may be obtained from public sources such as libraries and archives.

A former cabinet member and ambassador to India, Moynihan is a respected man of ideas with 18 books to his credit. He says that the U.S. government ought to dismantle its "culture of secrecy" and lead the world into a new "era of openness." He contends that during the Cold War the two superpowers "paid hideous costs for keeping matters of state closed to the people whom the states embodied."

In the U.S. Senate, Moynihan's radical opposition to secrecy puts him in a minority. But he is in tune with President Bill Clinton whose Executive Order 12958 has gone the farthest in reversing the century's trend for secrecy.

In 1995 Clinton mandated the automatic declassification by the year 2000 of all documents 25 years old or older -- unless a government agency appeals for classification on the grounds that disclosure would endanger national security. No other world power has a comparably liberal policy.

Government agencies are asking for more time for the laborious process of declassification. It is an open question who will prevail: those who are bent on keeping secrets or others calling for disclosure.

There may not be a winner. The tug of war may go on and become one of those built-in disagreements which make life less predictable in a democracy. But thinking since the Cold War's end favors those sharing Moynihan's distaste for secrecy and for the bureaucracy built to manage secrets.

In academic and journalistic circles, Moynihan's argument is attractive, as declassified documents inspire a bonanza of great stories and fresh interpretations of events and personalities. Moynihan also draws on the populist American tradition of openness and distrust of bureaucracy.

But few if any political leaders around the world would accept Moynihan's euphoric contention that with our century's great ideological conflict dead and the radical openness of the Information Age dawning, the time of state secrets has passed.

Many Americans disagree with Moynihan's views on the matter. The Soviet empire's fall has not eliminated all closed societies. The world is still a hunting ground for dangerous leaders with great ambitions who need to be watched. Assessing a foreign leader's intentions requires inside tips. But such information runs dry unless secrecy shields its sources, as neither governments nor private individuals who wish to help will give information if disclosure might follow.

Moynihan's strongest arguments come from the beginning and the end of the Cold War.

He cites recently declassified documents which he says prove that President Harry Truman did not know the facts on the communist network in the U.S. which the decoding project called Venona identified. General Omar Bradley, then heading the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, chose not to share that information, a result of years of work by army intelligence. Moynihan says that what Truman knew of communist penetration came from people he distrusted: Senator Joe McCarthy and the House committee investigating activities it dubbed anti-American.

Moynihan, himself an anti-communist liberal, theorizes that had Truman received a reliable assessment of the communist threat and shared it with the public, the national consensus condemning domestic communists would have been stronger, and the rancorous split within the liberal community could have been avoided.

But many in the government wonder if revealing the threat might not have had a fallout. Making those secrets public, or even sharing them with other government agencies, could have alerted the Soviets that the U.S. had broken their code which they thought was unbreakable and thus they would have started working on a better system.

The second pillar of Moynihan's argument deals with the famously wrong U.S. assessments of Soviet military and economic power. The experts relied on secret sources whose projections of Soviet might were inflated. As a result, U.S. leaders were clueless when watching the empire's collapse.

Moynihan's critics point to a diversity of U.S. assessments of Soviet power. They were offered by competing centers of analysis, which has become an indispensable feature of the American system. Some analysts did diagnose the Soviet economy as tottering and the political structure as deeply corrupt. One dissident school of thought even contended that ethnic tensions will break up the empire.

But U.S. decision makers endorsed the conventional wisdom. They could only shake their heads in disbelief when people from Berlin to Warsaw and points further east trashed all the red stars they came across.