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Statement of

Steven Aftergood
Director, Project on Government Secrecy
Federation of American Scientists

before the

Committee on Governmental Affairs
United States Senate

Hearing on

S.1801, The Public Interest Declassification Act

July 26, 2000


The Public Interest Declassification Act is an extremely modest proposal.

In fact, the objectives of the Act are so limited that if it were the final result of the ambitious process that began with the Moynihan Commission in 1995, then it would be a pathetic conclusion indeed.

But if it is a "middle" rather than an "end," and if it can contribute to the advancement of more substantial changes in national security classification policy, as I believe, then the Act represents an opportunity that should be seized.

My name is Steven Aftergood and I am a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos. FAS performs policy research and advocacy on a range of national security policy issues, with an emphasis on nuclear arms control. I direct the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, which studies government secrecy and information security policies, and generally favors greater openness in national security policy.


The last time this Committee held a hearing on government secrecy was two years ago. [Endnote 1] Since that time, there have been several changes in secrecy policy that are unfavorable to "protecting and reducing government secrecy," as the official name of the Moynihan Commission would have it. To the contrary, secrecy is increasing in scope and diminishing in effectiveness. For example:

Instead of "protecting and reducing" government secrecy, we have been "expanding and exposing" it. It is evidently easier to allow the classification system to break down than it is to agree on how it should be fixed.

The Present Bill

The present bill would not do much to solve the problem. The secrecy legislation that was first introduced in 1997 has been watered down in each subsequent iteration to the point that the present bill would have no direct impact on secrecy policy whatsoever. The bill would create a "Public Interest Declassification Board" that has no independent authority to declassify or compel declassification. Its "advice" and "recommendations" would create no obligation on the part of the recipient.

We know from experience that such declassification advisory bodies can make a positive contribution when they have independent declassification authority, as in the case of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board. Lacking such authority, as in the case of the CIA Historical Review Panel, for example, they are purely cosmetic and without effect.

It is hard for those who have read and admired the Report of Sen. Moynihan’s Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy not to be disappointed with this meager outcome. If the final result of the process were nothing more than a mere advisory body, then the entire Commission would have been largely a waste of time, as would the related efforts of this Committee over the years.

But that need not be the case. I believe that the S. 1801, the Public Interest Declassification Act, could still serve as a vehicle for advancing more ambitious goals, and should be enacted.

S.1801 As a Stepping Stone to Larger Goals

Despite its clear limitations, I believe that S.1801 could still serve several useful purposes and should be enacted. These purposes include:

The Board could serve as an advocate within the executive branch for the promotion of policies consistent with the executive order, the findings of the Moynihan Commission, and other reform initiatives. The Board could help oversee compliance with executive order declassification milestones, special initiatives such as the Chile Declassification Project, and so forth. It could identify specific obstacles to secrecy reform and develop its own declassification policy proposals. It could also serve as an internal executive branch advocate for declassification funding. Even though it could not compel compliance with declassification standards, the Board could serve a useful function by highlighting problem areas for others to act upon.

The Board could play an enormously valuable role by overseeing the development of legislation affecting classification and declassification policy and advising Congress, as appropriate.

This function is particularly important since Congress has of late adopted significant legislation on secrecy policy without public hearings or other opportunity for public comment. Some of the secrecy policy issues presently before Congress include: Should Defense Intelligence Agency operational files and unclassified foreign government information be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act? Does the benefit of re-reviewing declassified files at the National Archives outweigh the costs involved? Should limits on declassification spending be lowered by 50%?

The Board could take the initiative to provide well-informed input into these and other highly consequential legislative actions, a function that is clearly consistent with Section 3(b)(2) of the bill.

The passage of S.1801 and the creation of the Public Interest Declassification Board would give Congress a "stake" in the conduct of declassification policy, and would provide an occasion for regular oversight of the classification system. This has been sorely lacking.

Although there have been valuable hearings held on legislation affecting particular categories of records involving human rights in Central America, Nazi war crimes, and other topics, there has been no regular or systematic oversight of classification policy for years.

If classification and declassification policy really is as important as I think this Committee believes, then there is a role for increased congressional oversight and the new Board could help bring that about.


In the interests of advancing these important objectives, I respectfully suggest that the Committee give favorable consideration to this legislation.


1. "S.712-- Government Secrecy Act of 1997," hearing before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, March 25, 1998, S. Hrg. 105-525.

2. See "Seeking Secrecy Where There Was Sunshine," by Tom Blanton, The Washington Post, July 19, 2000.

3. See http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/mideast/041600iran-cia-index.html.

4. See "Web Site Posts Secret CIA Briefing Papers," by Vernon Loeb and Doug Struck, The Washington Post, July 23, 2000. The web site is http://jya.com/crypto.htm.

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