Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Article excerpt

Between six and seven million U.S. government documents are stamped "classified" every year; about 17,000 daily. The president's own Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) does not know precisely how many millions--or billions--of secret records are stored in agency vaults. The cost of keeping so many secrets--what with salaries, safes, locks, security training, record management, computer programs, and the like--is equally staggering. The ISOO figured that the government spent some $4.1 billion in 1997 alone on "security classification." And that amount does not include the CIA's share, which is ... secret.

How does one explain this orgy of classification? One reason is the culture of secrecy that dominates the military and intelligence agencies, a culture that rewards obfuscation and opacity and profoundly discourages transparency. Equally importantly, no penalty for overclassifying government information exists, although those who challenge the secrecy system risk censure, sanction, or worse. In the course of a 1995 investigation into human rights abuses in Guatemala, for instance, State Department official Richard Nuccio found classified CIA documents indicating that a Guatemalan army colonel--who was also a paid CIA informant--was helping cover up the murder of an American innkeeper and the torture and murder of the husband of an American citizen. After making what he believed to be an ethical choice to inform Congress of the facts, Nuccio was stripped of his security clearances by the CIA for disclosing classified information, a decision supported by the Justice Department. Nuccio resigned in 1997, sending a chilling message to those facing comparable dilemmas.

Restrictive secrecy practices also cheat history. Despite a variety of legislative safeguards designed to protect the historical record (such as the Federal Records Act), there are few rules and little oversight to guide the preservation of government documents. Currently, only about 3% of U.S. government records are preserved for posterity. Agencies can make unilateral decisions to "disappear" records permanently with little fear of punishment--either by deliberately destroying them or by ceasing to create them. For instance:

* Many of the original files documenting the CIA's 1953 covert operation in Iran--the agency's first successful overthrow of a government--were destroyed, a CIA historian revealed in 1997.

* To guarantee the secrecy of its covert "MKULTRA" program, which for twenty years ran behavior modification experiments on unwitting human subjects, the CIA destroyed most of these documents in 1973.

* The Reagan White House did its best to delete its electronic mail files both during the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s and again when the administration was preparing to leave Washington in 1989. The discovery of an unknown backup collection led to a lawsuit to prevent the wholesale destruction of electronic information, and the courts have since upheld the government's duty to preserve such records. Yet in practice, computerized records are easier to delete, and it is more difficult to discern various versions of a document or to access files among several generations of computers.

In each case, an irreplaceable piece of American history has disappeared forever into the black hole of secrecy. …

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