CIA Clings to Secrecy
Robert Gates promised less secrecy in the CIA but didn't deliver; now director R. James Woolsey will try to loosen the tongue of the Sphinx
IN the fall of 1991, the former director of central intelligence, Robert Gates, convened a Task Force on Openness to discuss limited changes in the way the Central Intelligence Agency deals with secrecy. The Task Force report recommended the declassification of certain historical materials and national intelligence estimates on the former Soviet Union more than 10 years old. In subsequent speeches, Mr. Gates enunciated a philosophy of openness, which he claimed would extend to the culture of the Agency i tself - that with the end of the cold war, it was important that the CIA be seen as sharing the values of freedom and openness held by Americans.
Gates is no longer the director of central intelligence, and in his 16-month tenure, the only concrete example of this openness was the release of select CIA documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis and a symposium held on Oct. 19, 1992, at Langley, Va., in which the likes of Ray Cline and Richard Helms reminisced about the missiles of October.
More symposiums are planned; the release of material on the JFK assassination is eminent; and the release of documents on the Bay of Pigs, Guatemala 1954, and Iran 1953 are promised. That is the extent of CIA openness; it remains to be seen what the new director, R. James Woolsey, will do.
During Mr. Woolsey's Senate confirmation hearings on Feb. 2, 1993, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio asked about openness. Woolsey replied that he believed it to be a good thing in principle, but that he had not studied the issue in detail. He said he planned to look into the matter more closely, adding that he agreed with Sen. James DeConcini (D) of Arizona that too many documents are classified each year. When Senator Metzenbaum pressed Woolsey to be specific about what he would declassify and what ch anges he would make in the way documents are classified, he replied that he would prefer going into details during the closed portion of the hearings. The question arises: Why must openness be discussed in secret, behind doors closed to the public.
Whenever the topic of openness is raised, senators, congressmen, and CIA spokesmen all say, "We endorse the principle, so long as intelligence sources and methods are not compromised." This is a legitimate caveat, one which would be far more welcome if it did not seem at times to replace another tried and true phrase - "for reasons of national security." The phrase "sources and methods" is often invoked in order to prevent the release of documents, not to protect a source or preserve a method.
WITH the end of the cold war, it is clearly a propitious time to take a second look at the CIA and government secrecy. While much will need to remain classified, there are significant drawbacks in the traditional cold-war approach to government secrecy. One of the results of secrecy is that information is withheld.
The CIA is not just the executor of covert operations, it is also one of the largest funds of information on national-security policy and foreign affairs. This information includes not only military threats, but economic competition, environmental concerns, and health crises. Until now, the vast preponderance of this information has been classified, and even the Freedom of Information Act has been unable to pry more than a fraction of it away from the vaults in Langley.
CIA analyses and information shape the conduct of our foreign policy, and since the agency's inception, that information has been removed from the public sphere. Though preventing our rivals from obtaining a full picture of our policies, this has also prevented our public from openly debating many of those policies. So long as rigid secrecy remains the rule, our foreign policy will continue to be shaped in secret and without the benefits of public discourse. In a world where technology and information li nk society, control over the latter is power. Our society is based on democracy, on participation in the decisions that our government makes. Without information, such participation is not possible.
Woolsey is new to the CIA, and now is the time to set the tone for the future. Gates articulated an idea, but the CIA is no more open on substantive issues than it was 10 years ago. Surely, there is a way to provide enough access to current intelligence, current secrets, so that the public and the media are informed enough to debate policy in the present rather than simply passing retrospective judgment on past mistakes or decisions which our government has made.
Hopefully, Woolsey will make an effort to transform Gates's rhetoric into reality. Hopefully, he will begin asking hard questions about when secrecy is necessary and when it is not; when the release of information will truly jeopardize that nebulous thing called "national security" and when the only thing that will be jeopardized is the reputation of the people who were supposed to be preserving it; and perhaps, he will begin asking why secrecy is now the rule and openness the exception in a society supp osedly founded on the principle of open dialogue and public debate.
The CIA is only part of the problem of government secrecy, but is is unquestionably the most important symbol of it. Real changes by the CIA would almost certainly lead to changes within the government as a whole. In a world where information has come to connect society, democracy depends on its free flow. If at the highest levels of government that flow is unduly restricted, then there will continue to be a profound dissonance between our society and our foreign policy. That is a dangerous cleavage, and
one which we should heal before it becomes a chasm. Please, Mr. Woolsey, do not continue to make openness simply a good idea.