WASHINGTON TODAY: Government May Be Slow To Let Go Of Old Secrets
Jul. 12, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Researcher Morris Moses hopes that a new presidential order to declassify old government secrets will finally help him discover the techniques censors used to read Americans' mail during World War II.
But advocates of giving researchers like Moses what they want are not as optimistic that government agencies will be eager to comply with President Clinton's 1995 order.
``Historians are pretty frustrated with the new executive order,'' says Page Putnam Miller, who lobbies for such groups as the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. ``It appears agencies are not doing much to implement it or are trying to delay to see what will happen with the election.''
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield disagrees.
To comply with the order, the CIA is preparing to review 40 million pages either manually or by computer _ an amount of material Mansfield likens to ``a stack of boxes 50 Washington Monuments high.''
In a decade of trying, Moses, 72, a retired engineer, has obtained only snippets of information about the technology used by the wartime Office of Censorship to intercept mail, radio or teletype transmission that might contain secrets about troop movements or battle plans.
Of the 100 pages the government has turned over so far, Moses says, many portions are blacked out to protect still-classified secrets.
``I got a bit here, and a piece there,'' he says.
``They give you a piece of paper and right in the middle of the piece of paper would be two words and the rest would be all blacked out,'' says Moses, of Albany, N.Y., who has already written a book about the technology of the Minox camera.
Despite his frustration over the delay, Moses says he is optimistic that a new panel set up by Clinton's 1995 order to hear appeals by researchers like himself will overturn the government's refusal to declassify the files he wants.
The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel _ called ICECAP by the bureaucrats _ consists of representatives of the National Security Council, the CIA, and the departments of Justice, State and Defense.
It also has the authority to review requests by government agencies for exemptions from the order that records older than 25 years be automatically declassfied. Exemptions would give agencies five years to conduct page-by-page reviews of records.
Critics fear that the order will not be successfully implemented because of traditional bureaucratic inertia and resistance to releasing secrets, however old they might be.
``There have been a lot of obstacles that are being raised in various agencies to actually getting this done,'' says Kate Martin, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a private group that seeks to open secret government files.
Instead of listing specific files or groups of records, agencies have claimed that broad categories of information should be examined page by page, critics say.
Some agencies that ``cited way too broad a sweep'' of documents will soon be told to provide more detailed justifications for exemptions, says Steve Garfinkel, who coordinates the implementation of Clinton's order as director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
In the meantime, most ``agencies are very busy reviewing and declassifying documents. ... that is going on at an unprecedented pace,'' he says.
Since 1994 the government has declassified 87 million pages, Garfinkel said. Estimates of secrets covered by the order run as high as half a billion pages.
Another obstacle is money. The intelligence authorization bill passed by the House has cut from $25 million to $12.5 million the money set aside for agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency to review their records.
Congress also gave the Energy Department the power to exempt itself from automatic declassification to protect atomic secrets.
Meantime, Moses is waiting for action on his appeal along with about 10 other researchers who have longstanding requests for classified material.
Without giving any promises, Moses says Garfinkel told him his prospects are rosy. ``I hope they know what they are doing down there.''
EDITOR'S NOTE _ James Rowley has covered legal affairs in Washington for The Associated Press since 1987.