Senate bill calls for advisory board on declassification

A special board of advisers on declassifying federal records would improve what has become a costly and time-consuming process for security agencies, according to witnesses at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on S. 1801, the Public Interest Declassification Act of 1999, which calls for a nine-member declassification board to make recommendations to the President on declassification policy and agency programs.

The proposed board would advise the President on whether or not certain information should be released to the public, but would not have the authority to declassify documents.

In 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, mandating declassification of historically valuable information that is at least 25 years old.

Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said declassification is a delicate balancing act. "It's a question of striking the right balance-of finding a way to release needlessly classified information without preventing our security agencies from accomplishing their missions or letting sensitive information escape," Thompson said.

According to a 1998 report from the Information Security Oversight Office , 850 million pages were declassified under various review programs between 1980 and 1998. The bulk of that material was released after the President's 1995 executive order.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., introduced similar legislation in 1997, along with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Moynihan said there is currently enough classified material to stack up as high as 441 Washington monuments.

S. 1801 seeks to alleviate the burden created by special search requests. These comprehensive reviews of classified information on topics such as human rights violations in Guatemala and Nazi war crimes are overwhelming the staffs and budgets of security agencies. The President, members of Congress, and agency heads can all request such ad hoc searches-resulting in many redundant requests, according to Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

"Members of Congress, executive branch policymakers, and interest groups have asked the intelligence community to conduct and complete no fewer than nine separate searches since 1993 for records on the churchwomen murdered in El Salvador," Goss said.

To reduce the drain on resources, the Clinton administration has occasionally used a system of "bulk declassifications." One bulk declassification at the Energy Department, however, accidentally released 25 documents containing sensitive nuclear weapons-related data.

Dr. Warren Kimball, Robert Treat professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey suggested the board should meet two or three times a year and that current government officials should be excluded from membership.

"The board must have the public's confidence that it is independent if it is to confirm the comprehensiveness of declassification programs and legitimate "special searches," said Kimball.

R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, stressed the importance of selecting a board members with diverse experience with classified material. He suggested placing historians side by side with former intelligence and military officers. However, he said that funding for the board was crucial to attract people of the highest caliber.

Many agency-review boards already advise government officials on declassification policies, including an Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel and the State Department's Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation.

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