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Remarks on government secrecy vs. disclosure

By John Podesta
White House chief of staff
03.27.99

You know, timing is everything. What a moment to be discussing the role of 'openness' in government, and the way this Administration has worked to balance the need for openness with the need for appropriate secrecy.

Senator (Daniel Patrick) Moynihan wrote in his book, [titled] Secrecy, that 'openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past.' Given the current Congressional debate on China, I have no doubt that we will put that proposition to the test in the weeks and months ahead.

Now, we all pay homage to the idea that 'openness' stands at the heart of what George Washington termed America's "great experiment." Our nation was founded on the revolutionary principle that a government's legitimacy depends on the trust of the governed. It's an idea that embraces every citizens' right to participate in decisions being made in his or her name. And for more than two hundred years, it's been safeguarded by a system of checks and balances woven through the fabric of our entire constitutional system.

Openness is what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had in mind when he said, "sunlight is the best of disinfectants." He recognized that when a people's trust in their government — especially a democratic government — is undermined or brought into question, the government's ability to work can be severely impaired. There is nothing like openness to guarantee a strong democratic foundation and to maintain the public faith. But having said this, there are two important principles we must never forget.

The first is that our drive for greater openness can not be interpreted by anyone as a license to disclose classified information. There must be respect for the law, and respect for the reality that there are secrets worth protecting.

Some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy. And often our interest in protecting the method by which information was obtained is even greater than our interest in protecting its content. For example, when disclosures of classified information mention satellite photos, other nations often take heed and conceal their activities.

When 'intercepts' or 'eavesdropping' are mentioned, we often find that codes or equipment are changed and listening devices are disabled. And when human sources are revealed, as they were by Aldrich Ames to the Soviet Union, the consequences can be fatal.

The Gulf War provided another telling example: In 1990, U.S. press reports disclosed that our imagery satellites had detected fixed Scud missile launch sites in western Iraq. Baghdad responded by building decoy launchers to fix our attention, and, during the early phases of the war, our air strikes, on these sites, which they no longer intended to use. While our pilots risked their lives to attack the unused fixed positions, the Iraqis switched to using mobile Scud launchers, from which they rained missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, in addition to the problem of unauthorized disclosures and leaks, we also face the more serious problem of espionage. As you all certainly know, it is now clear that during the 1980s, China may have acquired sensitive information about U.S. nuclear weapons technology from the Energy Department's labs. When the allegations of Chinese espionage were brought to our attention, the Administration responded. The allegations were thoroughly investigated. Key members of Congress were briefed. Early last year, the president approved PDD-61, which directed the Energy Department to strengthen its security and counter-intelligence procedures. We are vigorously implementing that PDD.

We have also maintained export control policies for China that are among the most restrictive we apply to any country in the world. We do not authorize any arms sales to China or exports of dual use technology for military uses. We also limit the export of dual use technology to China for civilian uses to minimize the chance it may be diverted. And we have a complete ban on any assistance to China's nuclear weapons or ballistic missile programs.

We have no illusions that China and many other nations seek to acquire our most sensitive information. As the world's leading military and technological power, we are by definition the world's number one target for military and industrial espionage. The right response to foreign intelligence on our soil is stronger counter-intelligence, and strict enforcement of our laws governing the disclosure of information and the export of technologies. The president and the entire administration are committed to those ends.

What we must avoid is a temptation somehow to recreate the political and scientific world of the 1950s, by shutting off academic exchanges, and creating a climate of mistrust and fear in our contacts with the people of other nations. No nation benefits more from the free flow of ideas than the United States. And no cause benefits more from the free flow of ideas than the cause of freedom, including the cause of freedom in China.

And that brings me to my second principle, which is that the requirements of secrecy are not fundamentally in conflict with our commitment to openness in the ways our government — and our nation — does business.

The best way to encourage respect for our most important secrets, among administration officials and government employees, among members of Congress and their staffs, among members of the press, among the American people, is for secrecy to be returned to a limited but necessary role, and ultimately, to reduce the number of secrets overall. That is the fundamental conclusion reached by the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Moynihan. And that's the principle that drives President Clinton's commitment to protect secrets critical to our national security, while promoting greater openness in government.

Three overlapping tenets underlie this policy approach:

First, in a free society, the public must have access to information about the workings of government.

Second, in the information age, government must use technology to promote openness — but it must use it wisely, and in ways that prevent unauthorized access. And third, in an era of shrinking budgets, the management of government information must be cost-effective. Let me elaborate briefly on each of these points, starting first with the purpose of openness in a free society. As I mentioned earlier, our founders understood that democracy cannot function in the absence of public information. But practically speaking, there are other, less-philosophical reasons for government to want to make information as widely available as possible.

Greater openness permits better public understanding of government's actions — and makes it more possible for the government to justify its actions and respond to criticism. Greater openness makes the free exchange of scientific information possible, which in turn encourages discoveries that foster economic growth and social well-being. And greater openness, especially regarding the government's past actions, can help resolve long-standing controversies — and often provide guidance for the future.

The second tenet underlying our policy of openness is the use of new technologies to increase the free flow of information. In 1996, we worked with Congress, and in particular with Senator Leahy, to enact the Electronic Freedom of Information Act.

Since President Clinton signed the bill into law, literally millions of pages of public information with widespread public interest have been made available on the Internet. And I would note that this success is due in no small part to Vice President Gore's efforts to reinvent government so that it "works better and costs less." As a result, today, every federal agency has a public web site where citizens can learn about the policies and programs that affect their lives. The vice president may not have invented the Internet, but he sure has helped make the government more accessible through the Internet.

At the same time, it's important to remember that the information revolution is also creating new challenges for the management of information, particularly in information security. New technology is promoting access, but computer security too often remains an afterthought.

Above and beyond the difficult but somewhat routine questions of controlling access to classified and sensitive — but unclassified — computer systems, the government is beginning to grapple with the national security challenges posed by access to open source information on the net. To help you consider the problem, can you imagine the allied armies planning the D-Day deception if every unit had its own Web site'

The third tenet I mentioned is that government management of information must be cost-effective. The E-FOIA statute I discussed earlier recognizes that it's cheaper to disseminate information that you know the public is likely to be interested in, than to wait for the public to request that information under FOIA.

FOIA is the least efficient way to make government information public. This is true from the federal budget standpoint; in terms of the cost to the public; and in terms of the delay in getting information out. Our information management systems must be built to maximize the appropriate and timely dissemination of information to the public, so that we don't have to go back and release it on a costly, piecemeal, after the fact basis.

The president's policy on classification and declassification, embodied in Executive Order 12958, is built on these tenets. President Clinton has led the administration and its agencies in an unprecedented effort to meet the Order's declassification requirements.

In fiscal years 1996 and 1997, agencies declassified more than 400 million pages of historically valuable documents — 50 percent more than in the previous 16 years combined. The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) estimates that these 400 million pages constitute about a quarter of the total universe of classified pages subject to automatic declassification by April 2000.

In other words, we are off to a good start. And this year, I am especially pleased that President Clinton's FY 2000 budget requests $30 million specifically designated to support declassification, with a focus on historically valuable records. This request is the first ever by any president for this purpose — and is a sign of the president's commitment to maintaining a more open government. This funding will help us build on the declassification record that our government has set over the past several years. Let me give you a few other examples.

You know the work of the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. Its accomplishments include reviewing and voting on over 27,000 previously redacted assassination records, and obtaining agencies' consent to release an additional 33,000-plus assassination records. These records included previously redacted records from the CIA's Directorate of Operations, and FBI documents describing the FBI's attempts to track Lee Harvey Oswald's activities in Europe prior to the assassination.

None of this progress would have occurred without the cooperation of the agencies involved. I think history will show that, for this unique set of records — given the importance of their full release in terms of public confidence in government — the process and expense were well-justified. The process permitted a few of the declassification recommendations to go to the highest levels, including the president. The Board is an example of how clear direction and accountability can produce progress.

And there are other examples worth noting. In 1994 President Clinton issued an executive order that declassified in bulk approximately 45 million pages of World War Two and Vietnam War era documents — nearly 15% of the National Archives' classified materials. In 1995 the president ordered, for the first time, the declassification of overhead imagery from the Corona, Argon, and Lanyard missions — historic documents which will be of great value to historians, as well as the natural resource and environmental communities.

In 1996, NSA released extensive information about the Venona project. Ending a 50-year silence on one of cryptography's most successful efforts, and providing valuable insight into Soviet attempts to infiltrate the U.S. government. That same year, NSA initiated "Project Open Door," releasing over one million pages of historic crypto-logic documents that provide insight into some of the century's most compelling stories.

We have also tried hard to help nations in which the United States supported covert activities during the Cold War come to terms with difficult periods in their past. Recently, Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission released a report that detailed the human rights violations the Guatemalan government committed during that country's civil war.

It also released information concerning America's support for military and intelligence units that engaged in killings and repression. The United States provided $1.5 million in support for the commission's work, and declassified over 4,000 documents at its request. The president was in Guatemala last week and he pledged our continued support for this effort.

Our progress is not just limited to the declassification of old documents. Perhaps more significant is a trend that will affect future declassification. Before President Clinton signed the executive order, a tiny minority — only 5% — had a fixed declassification date. Since President Clinton signed the executive order, ten times that number are now marked for declassification in ten years or less.

Finally, notwithstanding the Armstrong decision — that National Security Council records are presidential records, and thus not subject to FOIA — the NSC has continued to apply discretionary access policies and procedures. Since 1997, pursuant to presidential direction, the NSC has reviewed approximately half a million pages for declassification, and has determined that 90% of them can be released in whole or in part.

Let me conclude by saying that the administration will continue to pursue a policy of government openness and balance the vital interests of national security with the public's right to know. But doing so requires real choices. It requires us to make distinctions between those things that are unambiguously important to protect, and those where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm that could come from release.

But we in government are not the only ones with a responsibility. A generation ago, when The New York Times published The Pentagon Papers, a great controversy ensued. In newsrooms across the country, journalists debated whether and when it is ethically right for the press to make public classified information that might damage national security.

In retrospect most people would probably say that the Times made the right call back then; that the very real danger of publishing that material was outweighed by the depth and breadth of the deceptions that needed to be exposed. The point is, the debate took place. Reporters and editors consciously and gravely weighed the public's right to know against the government's need to maintain some secrecy.

Today, highly classified information appears on the front pages of newspapers not rarely but almost daily — much of it extremely damaging to our national security. Yet debate about it has virtually disappeared. Instead there seems to be formulaic rationale that says that a journalist's only obligation is to get as much controversial classified material as possible, verify its authenticity, and get it into print.

If the source of the leak happens to be the loser of a policy battle bent on revenge; if the leaks have been carefully selected in order to give a partisan, politically damaging, one-sided view; if that view can only be rebutted by the leaking of still more classified information; if the leaks upset months of delicate diplomacy, compromise intelligence sources and methods, or put intelligence assets at risk — none of these considerations seem to be considered. In fact, many journalists consider it a basic rule of journalism that they do not to let such considerations get in the way of their story.

I'm not arguing against tough, investigative reporting. It's the most important safeguard against government mistakes and the natural inclination to not admit those mistakes, or in the worst cases to cover them up. What I am asking is that journalists and editors consider the costs of a system fine-tuned to dig out and publish as much highly classified information as possible, and that they ask themselves, 'Is this the right balance in our profession?' It's a judgment they will have to make.

Balance is more difficult than a policy of unthinking secrecy or unthinking disclosure. In pursuing a balanced approach, we, in the administration, seek to protect national security but also to be true to our most fundamental values as a nation. For over two centuries, we have prospered and won because — at our best — we have found ways to do both. As James Madison wrote in 1822, "A popular government without popular information, or means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

I pledge to you that — as long as I am chief of staff to the president — I will work alongside with you to that noble end.

Thank you.


Related

Top Clinton aide: Find balance between secrecy, openness

'Secrecy must be returned to a limited but necessary role,' says John Podesta. 03.17.99

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