'Classified' Stamp Gone Wild

Not content with prosecuting a former Navy employee for espionage for leaking a photograph to the press, the Reagan Administration--at the urging of the Central Intelligence Agency--is now considering asking Congress to enact legislation that would make it a crime for any government employee to disclose classified information to anyone.

The trouble with the idea is that the government routinely and systematically classifies much more than it nees to. To be sure, there are some secrets that the government should maintain in the interest of all citizens, but the truth is that there are not nearly as many legitimate secrets as the government would have us believe.

Think back to the Pentagon papers case. The government told the U.S. Supreme Court that public disclosure of the Pentagon papers would cause irreparable harm to the country--a claim that turned out to be patent nonsense. The Pentagon papers were a collection of historical documents revealing the decision-making concerning the Vietnam War. Far from damaging the country, their disclosure illuminated a crucial period in recent American history, and the only damage that they did was to the reputations of the decision-makers.

The Reagan Administration never seems to understand that, in a democracy, power resides with the people and not with the government. The Reagan White House continues to brood about how to restrict the flow of vital information that the public needs in order to evaluate the work and the policies of its elected officials. Congress has already rebuffed the White House once on its plan to require hundreds of thousands of government employees to sign secrecy agreements in perpetuity and to submit to lie-detector tests whenever information gets out that the Administration doesn't want out.

Experience demonstrates that current laws are adequate to protect legitimate sec rets. It's hard to think of a case in which a leaker has disclosed damaging information and the press has published it. The "classified" information that has been published shows how casually the classified stamp is applied--not to protect vital information but to keep the public uninformed.

The government's purpose is clear. The less the public knows, the less the government must explain and defend its decisions to informed critics. That may be a convenient arrangement for the people in the White House and in the Pentagon, but it's anathema to the democratic process. The purpose of enacting more laws on this subject is to make it harder for the people to find out what the government is doing in their name and with their money. If the executive branch goes ahead with this idea, Congress should slap it down once again. Eventually the White House might get the idea.

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