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Special Retrospective Issue
Winter 1996


As the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy enters its fifth year, this special issue of Secrecy & Government Bulletin (S&GB) steps back for a moment to review what we have done, and to reflect on what we do.

The very first issue of this newsletter declared in July 1991 that "In the Cold War era, secrecy, driven by fear and the politics of superpower rivalry, became deeply embedded in national affairs and led to serious political, moral, financial and environmental abuses."

That still seems to be a fairly accurate statement. Back then, however, we did not fully appreciate the extent to which secrecy had become an unexamined reflex, driven by bureaucratic habit or political expedience, and unrelated to external threats.

The fact that government secrecy is self-sustaining helps explain why the volume of classified documents in the U.S. government has increased since the end of the Cold War, even as the magnitude of the threat to national security has steadily diminished.


The premise of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy is that far too much information is classified in the name of national security, and that this excessive secrecy undermines government accountability, fosters public cynicism, wastes enormous amounts of money, and ultimately damages national security.

There are three distinct categories of national security secrecy. The first is composed of that core of legitimate secrets whose disclosure could demonstrably threaten the nation-- e.g., design details of advanced military technologies. Rigorous protection of such secrets positively serves the public interest.

The second and much larger category, which may be termed "bureaucratic secrecy," is a by-product of the natural secretiveness of all bureaucracies. All organizations have an instinctive tendency to control outside access to the information they possess. In the national security community, this tendency is enhanced by incentives to classify and disincentives to declassify, which account for many of the millions of new secrets created each year, as well as the billions of pages of classified documents that are 25 years old or more.

The third category, which we will call "political secrecy," is probably the smallest, but also the most pernicious. This refers to cases where secrecy is consciously imposed to serve a purely political objective, independent of any threat to the security of the nation. Politically motivated secrecy may lead the Administration to withhold information from Congress on specious national security grounds, or to deny legitimate public access to government information, as in the continuing classification of the U.S. intelligence budget total.

S&GB has focused its efforts on attempting to strip away the bureaucratic and political accretions of secrecy that serve no valid purpose.

The notion that public interest groups can and should challenge government secrecy policy is not self-evident or widely shared. Many officials believe that, in practice, members of the public have no right to an opinion about secrecy policy in general or about the secret activities of government in particular.

Thus, in his interesting and highly readable new book "Secret Intelligence and Public Policy" (Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington, DC,1995), Pat M. Holt writes that unlike other areas of policy, when it comes to secret government activities public oversight is not an option. "If [national] parks are poorly managed and maintained, those members of the public who use the parks will organize themselves into an interest group that will... eventually bring about reform of the National Park Service. That cannot happen with respect to the intelligence community" or other secret programs, he suggests (p.9).

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Committees in the current Congress have drastically reduced the number of public interest witnesses that are invited to testify at hearings on intelligence policy, and have gone out of their way to impede declassification of current and past intelligence records. And though the interagency Security Policy Board has invited defense contractors to attend its meetings, in likely violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, it has specifically prohibited attendance by members of public interest groups.

S&GB and the FAS Project on Government Secrecy are predicated on the idea that all of these eminent people and institutions are wrong in theory and in practice. After five years, I believe we have demonstrated that public participation in the critique of secret government programs is not only possible, but desirable and even necessary.

I can't say that we planned to do exactly what we have done. The Project has been decisively shaped by chance encounters, plain brown envelopes in the mail, and many other unpredictable turns of events, both fortunate and otherwise. But I am convinced that if we had not been around beating our heads against the wall of secrecy, that wall (and our heads) would look different today. Several episodes stand out as evidence of that.


FAS is perhaps the only public interest group to have uncovered and disclosed an ongoing, unacknowledged special access program, which is the most tightly secured species of all secret government activities. This was back in 1991 when we gained unauthorized access to an assortment of classified documents from the Timber Wind program, which was a misguided effort to develop a nuclear reactor-propelled rocket for Star Wars applications.

Recognizing that national security secrecy was not entirely a game, we consulted a senior military officer at the Bush White House whom we knew to be an honest man and told him of our plans to expose Timber Wind. He emphasized that he could not authorize or condone disclosure of the program, but said that it would not "damage national security" in any literal sense of the words, particularly since Timber Wind was a "stupid" program. He did ask that we withhold certain technical innovations in the design of the nuclear fuel and we honored that request.

Our widely publicized disclosure of the Timber Wind program led to its cancellation, followed by the creation of another unacknowledged nuclear rocket program called Lofty Thunder to take its place-- which we also exposed-- and finally to the collapse of the whole effort.

We filed a complaint with the DoD Inspector General arguing that Timber Wind had been improperly classified as an unacknowledged special access program and after a year-long investigation, the IG confirmed that that was indeed the case.

Thus, the public interest sector filled the void where internal Defense Department controls failed to function and where Congressional oversight was practically nonexistent.

The Timber Wind case also marked the first time that the Project became the unauthorized recipient of classified or otherwise restricted information, which has been an invaluable asset in our work. It has been immensely gratifying on a personal level that numerous individuals over the years have trusted us enough to provide us controlled documents at some risk to themselves and for no tangible benefit. Even so, while the government has been indiscriminate and irresponsible in its classification practices, we have always tried to respect genuine national security considerations in our disclosure activities.


Another decisive moment in the history of S&GB was our 1991 FOIA request to the National Archives for the date of their oldest currently classified document. The astonishing reply was that a document dated April 15, 1917-- immediately prior to the U.S. entry into World War I-- was still currently classified and maintained in secure storage at the Archives.

This revelation neatly symbolized the extent to which "national security" had been used to mask a secrecy system that was (and is) dominated by bureaucratic lethargy. It came as a profound embarrassment to government security officials, particularly after Tim Weiner (then of the Philadelphia Inquirer) wrote a story about it which appeared on the front pages of dozens of newspapers around the country.

"The occasional criticism of government secrecy coming from the New York Times or the Washington Post is to be expected," according to Steven Garfinkel of the Information Security Oversight Office. But when an editorial complaining about the oldest classified document appeared in the Biloxi Sun-Herald (12/19/91), "I couldn't believe it," Mr. Garfinkel said, and he knew that something had to be done.

And in fact, something was done. Before Congress could prevent it, President Clinton bulk declassified 44 million pages of documents at the Archives in November 1994, including all pre- World War II records.


It took two arduous years to complete a new executive order on classification, which was a primary focus of the Project on Government Secrecy from 1993 to 1995.

S&GB's main contribution to the process was to serve as the sole conduit for "leaked" copies of all major drafts of the new executive order. Our release of these drafts into the public domain yielded an unprecedented volume of public comments on classification policy, and immeasurably improved the process.

One particularly important change that resulted from our disclosure of the leaked drafts was the reduction in the maximum classification lifetime for most documents from a proposed 40 years down to 25 years. Government officials have specifically attributed this change to an op-ed I co-authored with Tom Blanton in the New York Times (9/30/93) that compared the leaked first draft of the executive order unfavorably (and perhaps unfairly) with President Nixon's classification policy. That op-ed "had the effect of convincing some folks within the administration that we had submitted a faulty [first] draft," complained Mr. Garfinkel.


S&GB was also the first publication to report on the multi- billion dollar annual costs of the government secrecy system (issue 4); the "rules" for cover and deception (13); super- secret "waived" programs (15); current implementation of the 1951 Invention Secrecy Act (10,11,12) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (16,23,52); the evidence of CIA involvement in Cold War human radiation experiments (31); the creation and conduct of the Security Policy Board (38,46,53); the first CIA annual report (40); the fact that a detailed breakdown of the classified intelligence budget had been mistakenly published in a Congressional hearing record (41); and many other items of national significance.

Public interest advocacy is more difficult in matters of government secrecy than in most other areas, simply because information is harder to come by. But it is also more urgent that a public interest voice be expressed about such matters because secrecy enables the government to exercise enormous power that is not subject to effective checks and balances from the legislature, especially in the current Congress.

Today, there is an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally reform the Cold War secrecy system, even as new communications technologies are helping to erode the most intractable government secrecy systems worldwide. We hope to do our part to promote open, accountable government and to continue to prove by example that public interest groups can directly challenge even the most secret of government activities.

--Steven Aftergood


Like other public interest activities, the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy is dependent on the kindness of strangers and particularly on the generosity of our foundation funders.

S&GB has been miraculously supported over the years by the Rockefeller Family Fund, the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, the CS Fund, the HKH Foundation, the Deer Creek Foundation, the Millstream Fund, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, and one private donor, to all of whom we are permanently grateful.

Unfortunately, there is a limited number of foundations that fund public interest work on national security policy, freedom of information, and similar issues, and even that number is shrinking.

We are currently in the middle of a dedicated effort to raise funds for the Project on Government Secrecy, while we operate at a deficit. The outcome of that effort in the next few months will determine whether the Project is renewed or extinguished.

S&GB readers who can suggest potential funders are invited to contact us.

Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists, 307 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.

For further information contact Steven Aftergood.

Back issues of S&GB and other good stuff are located at the FAS government secrecy homepage at http://www.fas.org/sgp/.

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