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Limiting what bureaucrats rubber-stamp as 'top secret'

Beltway reformers want to narrow the rules for what's classified andfind a way to declassify data more quickly.

It's hard to find anyone who thinks there aren't enough secrets in Washington.

And when it comes to documents rubber-stamped "classified," even the government is beginning to realize things are out of hand. It's unable to pinpoint exactly how much data it keeps hidden from the average citizen.

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So great is the swell of classified information - tens of billions of pages, and growing - secrecy is in need of regulation, say reformers who want to limit overzealous bureaucrats.

As Congress adjourns as early as today, key advocates of reforming the classification system are already getting ready for a legislative fight in January. Their goal is passing a recently introduced bill to manage the existing mound of classified documents while limiting what can be marked secret in the future.

"It's like a bathtub filling with water," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, a former agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and current chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Some have suggested slowing the bathtub faucet by severely restricting what can be classified. Others simply want to pull the plug, releasing wholesale batches of documents regardless of potential damage to national security.

"Then there are people in Washington who turn the water on higher and leave the plug in," Representative Goss says of those who have resisted reform for years.

His effort to overhaul the classification system, titled the Public Interest Declassification Act (PIDA) of 1999, would limit what information the government classifies and establish a system to more rapidly declassify information.

Measured support

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In principle, there is broad support for reform, but the details are being watched closely by the intelligence community.

"There is too much classification," agrees Ronald Kessler, author of "Inside the CIA." "The people who get the power to classify tend to err on the side of caution. But how you change that I'm not sure."

Indeed, even Goss admits PIDA is just a start; many efforts have come before with varying degrees of success.

Since the 1950s, there have been seven major investigations into how government information is classified. Two years ago, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York recommended overhauling the system.

Mr. Moynihan has written the Senate version of PIDA, which would also establish a declassification board comprising archivists and national-security experts to oversee declassification efforts.

The panel would streamline government and citizen requests to view classified documents made through the Freedom of Information Act. These requests are often inefficient and time-consuming.

Let the people govern

The reform effort is important not only to untangle the bureaucratic mass of paper but to maintain the integrity of the democratic process, says former CIA Director Stansfield Turner.

"The fundamental premise of any democratic society is: The people govern. And they can't govern what they don't know is being done," he says, pointing to the nuclear-arms race during the cold war as an example.

The US had more than 32,000 missiles in the 1960s. Those numbers, not their location or design, could have and should have been disclosed, Mr. Turner says. "Even today we are only down to 12,000."

However, there is a huge caveat in all of this, says Robert Gates who headed the CIA during the Bush administration.

"When it comes to intelligence documents, there should not be bulk declassification," he says. "They need to be reviewed for protection of sources or their families who may be alive, and for the use of intelligence techniques that may still be in use."

Mr. Gates is also concerned about the government's ability to spend enough time and money on a serious review effort. "I don't know how you guard against inadvertent declassification of those kinds of things," he says.

At present, up to 3 million federal workers are allowed to classify a document. Even more can mark a document top secret. Millions of photos and documents have been accumulating since the cold war alone.

"The numbers of people who can classify at the top-secret levels have been reduced," Gates says, "but there has been no reduction of classified documents."

The rules that guide classifiers are often ambiguous and sometimes decades old. (There are 70-year-old classification guidelines still in place.)

It costs more than $26 billion each year to protect government secrets. As might be expected, the Department of Defense has the most classified data - more than half of all that exists. The CIA is next, with more than 30 percent.

Long-term thaw

Some are concerned about PIDA's impact on Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But others, including Moynihan, say a long-term thaw of top-secret information is already under way.

President Clinton signed an executive order in his first term that limited the scope of information that can be classified.

In 1995, the so-called Venona Intercepts - decoded Soviet diplomatic transmissions - were declassified. And in recent years, the government has released some secrets about nuclear-era experiments on American citizens by US scientists.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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