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Hiding the Truth in a Cloud of Black Ink


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Hiding the Truth in a Cloud of Black Ink


Published: August 26, 2004



In September, Congress will reconvene with a common goal at the top of its collective to-do list: reform our intelligence services in order to better protect the country from terrorist threats. Republicans and Democrats bring the best of intentions to their national security responsibilities. But too often, Congress and the American people lack the best information - in the form of declassified intelligence and national security materials - to ensure that the job is done right.

Thomas H. Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 commission, said that three-quarters of the classified material he reviewed for the commission should not have been classified in the first place. His panel's report, presented largely without redactions, was an exception to a long-standing practice of overclassifying national security information. Secrecy has become so pervasive in the federal government that it's often unclear whether facts are classified for legitimate security reasons, or simply for the political protection of agencies and officials.

The ability to make documents secret is one of the most powerful tools in government, and it has been used heavily for decades. The National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office reported 14.2 million classification actions for 2003 - more than double the number recorded 10 years earlier. At its extreme, the culture of classification can impair the information-sharing among intelligence agencies necessary to ensure sound policymaking; it can also deprive the American people of their ability to judge the effectiveness of their government on national security matters. We believe that the only way to address this growing problem - to clear Washington's fog of secrecy - is to direct an independent board to review the standards and procedures for national security classification.

We are not alone in our view that something may be seriously awry in the national security classification system. William Leonard, who directs the information security office, has called the current classification system "a patchwork quilt," the product of "a hodgepodge of laws, regulations and directives," and cites differing rules for making material secret from agency to agency as contributing to the confusion.

To fix this problem and provide necessary checks and balances, we have written legislation to create an independent national security classification board. It is our intent that this body will bring some common sense to bear on the national security classification system. The legislation would establish a three-person board, with the president and the bipartisan leadership in the House of Representatives and Senate each recommending one member, subject to Senate confirmation.

The board would have two tasks: first, to review and make recommendations on the standards and processes used to classify information for national security purposes; and second, to serve as a standing body to act on Congressional and certain executive branch requests to re-examine classification decisions.

Because entities from the traditional intelligence community to the Environmental Protection Agency have the power to classify documents, the board would look at national security classification across the government. And its creation would give Congress, for the first time, an independent body to which it could appeal a classification decision.

President Harry Truman noted that the C.I.A. was created "for the benefit and convenience of the president." But the United States cannot preserve an open and democratic society when one branch of government has a free hand to shut down public access to information. The lack of an independent appeals process for Congress tips the scales too far toward secrecy for any administration, and it is vital that we right this imbalance.

The 1946 Atomic Energy Act established the principle that some information is "born classified." There are certainly important sources and pieces of information that must never be compromised. But over the years, millions upon millions of documents that weren't born classified have inherited or adopted or married into a classification. As we fight the war on terror, it's a legacy we can no longer afford.

Trent Lott, Republican from Mississippi, and Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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