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Top Clinton aide: Find balance between secrecy, openness

By Harry F. Rosenthal
Special to

John Podesta...
John Podesta
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Clinton administration is committed to openness in its dealings but some secrets must be kept to protect diplomacy and military operations, the president's chief of staff told a National Freedom of Information Day conference yesterday.

"Secrecy must be returned to a limited but necessary role," said John Podesta. The United States, he said, is "the world's No. 1 target for industrial and military espionage."

Referring to recent disclosures that important U.S. nuclear secrets came into China's possession, Podesta said that key members of Congress were briefed on the situation. The United States, he said, has the strictest export controls on China and a complete ban on assistance in nuclear matters.

Although the alleged espionage took place in the 1980s, an investigation was not begun until 1995. A Taiwan-born scientist, the subject of the probe, was fired from his job only this year, prompting congressional criticism that the administration was lax.

Podesta said that while "everyone pays homage" to openness in government, some secrets must be held. This has become difficult in these days of the Internet and a culture of information-sharing among scientists.

"Can you imagine the Army planning the D-Day deception if every unit in that Army had its own Web site?" he said.

The conference included representatives of both federal and state governments as well as members of the archive and library communities.

Under President Clinton's policy on classification and declassification, Podesta said, agencies opened 400 million pages in the 1996 and 1997 fiscal years. Included were 33,000 pages of documents on John F. Kennedy's assassination, adding to 27,000 previously declassified. Recently, agencies declassified 4,000 documents on human rights violations in Guatemala.

As deputy chief of staff until he became the president's top aide in November, Podesta developed legislative and communications strategies for the White House, including advice on government information, privacy and telecommunications security. "In a free society, the public must have access to information," he said. "The government must promote openness."

But, he said, highly classified information appears regularly on the front pages of newspapers without any consideration being given to the harm this could cause. As an example, he cited a time in the 1980s when news reports disclosed the location of missile launch sites in southern Iraq. When U.S. planes arrived, the Iraqis had switched to mobile launchers.

For that reason, Podesta said, he wishes "publishers and editors to consider the cost of digging out some information."


Remarks on government secrecy vs. disclosure

Speech by White House chief of staff John Podesta at 1999 National Freedom of Information Day. 03.27.99

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