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Fort Worth Star-Telegram
April 26, 2001

CIA must stop sitting on historical briefings

Policy wonks and university poli-sci professors may be the only Americans who've actually heard of, much less read, a volume of the "Foreign Relations of the United States" historical series.

That doesn't give CIA Director George Tenet the right to duck the law that requires declassification of quarter-century-old documents for use as source information for the series.

But that's exactly what the head spy is trying to do on the grounds that his agency's presidential briefings may offer too unique an insight into CIA sources and methods.

Trying, hell. He's getting away with it. So is the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which flatly refuses to make any document available for declassification, no matter how old. The panel has been advising presidents since the 1950s.

A Feb. 19 `Washington Post' story by Vernon Loeb first brought to light Tenet's refusal to allow the "President's Daily Brief" to be declassified for historical purposes.

The State Department is directed to publish the historical series under U.S. Code Title 22. The enabling legislation describes the series as "a thorough, accurate and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity."

To compile such a diary, the historian of the State Department -- yes, Virginia, there is such a job title -- gathers information from "all records needed to provide a comprehensive documentation of the major foreign policy decisions and actions of the United States Government, including the facts which contributed to the formulation of policies and records providing supporting and alternative views to the policy position ultimately adopted."

Any federal document more than 25 years old is fair game unless there is some extraordinary circumstance. More on that later.

The State Department has been publishing the FRUS series for more than a century as the country's official foreign relations record. A multivolume series issued annually, its contents include declassified formerly secret and top secret documents. All big university libraries have it. It's invaluable for government, political science and history students.

And like it or don't, those records include presidential briefings conducted by the CIA.

Tenet is denying the historian's legal request for the documents on the grounds that declassifying the information would reveal sources that need to remain protected and to protect sensitive national security information.

Tenet and his minions in the spook world appear to be arguing that this material should remain secret forever. `Forever.' That's a long time and is unjustifiable under the Constitution, a document that they themselves swore to protect. The legal mark is 25 years, which in itself may be too long.

Pardon the American people for caring, but foreign affairs isn't some abstract thing that impacts only uptight men in expensive suits who work inside the Beltway. The executive branch and Congress are accountable to the citizens for foreign policy. If key things are secret, how can the public ensure that accountability?

Coming on the heels of last year's attempt to draft an official secrets act, this is troubling. A progressive erosion of open government and First Amendment rights continues, all in the name of "national security" as defined by government officials who may or may not have something to hide, who may or may not have been politically influenced, who may or may not be covering their backsides.

Since when did CIA become CYA?

President Clinton's veto saved the United States from tipping the balance between national security and open information too far toward secrecy. He dumped the measure that would have brought prison terms of up to three years to federal workers who willfully disclose any classified data that could harm national security. Current law already makes it a crime to leak classified defense material that harms the United States or to disclose data such as the names of U.S. spies.

The series is not up to date, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms has done spit to make the situation conform to the intent of the legislation -- which he helped write. The code says that departments of the U.S. government `shall' cooperate with the Office of the Historian. Not `may'. Not `if the mood strikes'. Shall.

The law allows agencies not to declassify or publish some information, but the onus is on the agency to demonstrate why that should occur. And the code says that "the originating agency shall attempt to make such deletions in the text as will make the record declassifiable."

Mr. Tenet, get out your black marker if you must, but it's time to release those documents.

Jill "J.R." Labbe is a `Star-Telegram senior editorial writer.

Copyright 2001 Star-Telegram

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