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The Washington Post

Inside Information

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 1999

Two lawmakers from opposite ends of the intelligence spectrum, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), introduced legislation last week that would create a nine-member board to oversee the declassification of historical government documents ''of extraordinary public interest.''

''Secrecy, in the end, is a form of regulation,'' said Moynihan, who once proposed abolishing the CIA. ''And I concede that regulation of state secrets is often necessary to protect national security. But how much needs to be regulated after having aged 25 years or more?''

Goss, a former CIA operations officer who now chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the new panel, which would be be called the Public Interest Declassification Board, would preside over ''a more orderly way to get classified information out to the public.''

All classified government documents are supposed to be automatically declassified after 25 years under an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995, but the process is anything but automatic and hasn't stopped the president and Congress from calling for a string of special declassification initiatives.

The proposed declassification board would oversee and manage these special requests, like Clinton's February directive ordering federal government agencies to declassify all documents relating to human rights violations and political violence in Chile from 1968 to 1990.

The board, appointed by the president, would be comprised of experts in history, national security, foreign policy, social science or law from outside the government. The board would have the power to recommend specific declassification initiatives to the head of the National Archives, who would have to notify Congress if he decided not to accept a recommendation from the board.

''A poll taken in 1993 found that three-quarters of those surveyed believed that President Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy involving the CIA, renegade elements of our military, and organized crime,'' Moynihan said. ''The Grassy Knoll continues to cut a wide path across our national consciousness. The classified materials withheld from the Warren Commission, several of our actions in Vietnam, and Watergate have only added to the American people's district of the federal government.''

But Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, called the Moynihan-Goss legislation ''woefully misconceived'' and said it would actually detract from broad government declassification by diverting funds to its own special initiatives.

Aftergood also said the bill provides no criteria for agencies to follow in declassifying information and no enforcement power for the board to use against agencies that fail to fully abide by its recommendations.

''Sen. Moynihan has made openness and secrecy a cause in the way no one else has,'' Aftergood said. ''And it pains me in not being able to endorse this legislation, because this is his last shot.'''


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