Sprehe: Foolish secrecy

Lag time in releasing 8.5 million World War II records is an example of misguided classification policies

The National Archives and Records Administration recently released a report to Congress from the Interagency Working Group (IWG) charged with finding, declassifying and making public all records pertaining to Nazi and Japanese war crimes during World War II.

Every nation has its contradictions. One of ours is that despite being champions of openness, we are enormously secretive. Our system of classifying documents for purposes of national security leaves millions of pages hidden from public view long after the security purpose has disappeared and been forgotten.

It took an act of Congress to create the IWG and eight years for it to complete its work. The result is the release of 8.5 million documents, some dating back almost 75 years.

The IWG report is timely because of the lessons it can teach us today. As Steven Garfinkel, who was acting IWG chairman until September 2006, writes in the report’s preface, “Disaster does not befall America when intelligence agencies declassify old intelligence operations records.”

Releasing such records seemingly violates the two taboos of declassification: revealing intelligence sources and methods and disclosing relationships with foreign intelligence services. Yet who can argue damage to current national security when the records are more than 60 years old? Elizabeth Holtzman, an IWG member and former congresswoman, pointed out that the Nazi sources provided little useful and some detrimental intelligence to the United States and its allies. “Given the intelligence failures of the Iraq war, it might be important for U.S. policy-makers to understand that using very bad people for intelligence activities does not automatically get us very good results and, instead, may get us very bad results,” she said.

Richard Ben-Veniste, an IWG member who was chief of the Watergate Task Force at the Special Prosecutor’s Office and later chief minority counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee, said far too much secrecy exists in government. “Secrecy often acts as the handmaiden of complacency, arrogance and incompetence,” he said. “There is no question that documents containing legitimate national security material must be protected. But far too often, documents are classified to avoid embarrassment or, more often still, simply because it is easy to do so without accountability.”

Ben-Veniste said that in a democratic society, openness should be the rule, and “the right to know should trump the impulse to withhold, except in truly justifiable circumstances.” In the end, he said, there was really no good reason why the documents were kept secret for so long.

As longtime Washingtonians know, every political administration gives its own spin to openness. Simply look at the Clinton and Bush administrations’ interpretations of the Freedom of Information Act for insight into the radically different meanings the term openness can have.

Today, the report’s lessons are especially compelling. Think of how silly it will look 10 years from now to recall the many instances in which federal agencies rushed to reclassify records that had been in the public domain for decades.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

About the Author

Tim Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.

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