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Clinton Plans to Lift Lid on Secret Papers : Security: Order will declassify hundreds of millions of documents that are at least 25 years old. White House agrees to some exemptions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton in the next few weeks will sign a sweeping order dismantling a significant piece of the government’s Cold War security apparatus by ordering the automatic declassification of hundreds of millions of secret documents held by federal agencies, Administration officials said Wednesday.

In an executive order circulating through the government for final agency comment, Clinton will require intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and the departments of State, Energy and Justice to begin a rapid review of their files with an eye toward releasing all classified documents more than 25 years old unless they meet a handful of relatively strict exemptions.

The order will produce an avalanche of data about American foreign policy, military planning, intelligence assessments and scientific research that has been kept under wraps for decades--at huge expense--for what many think are dubious reasons.

The documents are expected to shed new light on the planning and execution of the Vietnam War, U.S. policy toward Cuba, China and Iran and American assessments of Soviet intentions around the world in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Two months ago, the White House ordered the unsealing of 44 million previously classified documents dating back to World War II, but hundreds of millions of pages remain in vaults at the National Archives and in secure storage at half a dozen federal agencies, including the CIA.

The huge cache of material--including files on everything from secret military medical testing to shipbuilding to data on the birth of the space program--will keep historians, journalists and researchers busy for decades.

Officials could not estimate how many pages of material remain classified, but guesses range as high as several billion pages.

An Administration official said that because of the massive number of documents involved, agencies will not be able to review them page by page and stamp selected records “secret.”

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The executive order will allow agency officials five years to sample mountains of classified records to see what should be kept secret under the specified exemptions. But at the end of the five years, all material not exempted will be released whether or not it has been reviewed.

Critics of government-secrecy policy say the order is a step in the right direction but not the final answer to the government’s continuing obsession with secrecy.

“It is an important positive step overall, but this is only a transitional document. It does not solve all the secrecy problems that we’ve inherited from the Cold War. It does not eliminate secret intelligence budgets, for example. It is the beginning of a reform process, not the end,” said Steven Aftergood of the American Federation of Scientists, which has been trying to pierce official secrecy for years.

If Clinton signs the order, as expected, it will fulfill a promise made by former President Richard Nixon in 1972, when he called for the “immediate and systematic declassification” of all World War II and immediate post-war period records.

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But declassification has encountered numerous roadblocks in the intervening years, including objections from the State Department and the CIA, which feared that sensitive foreign relationships and covert operations would be revealed.

The Clinton Administration attacked the problem with renewed determination shortly after taking office, but it has taken nearly two years to overcome agency foot-dragging. An Administration official involved in drafting the order warned that it could still be delayed or scuttled by resistance from the bureaucracy.

To win agency approval for the order, the White House agreed to exempt from release these types of material:

* Anything that identifies human intelligence sources or “sensitive collection techniques.”

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* Any technical information that would assist in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

* Military planning documents that reveal war plans still in effect or operational tactics.

* Information that would compromise government code-making and code-breaking systems.

* Technical data on weapons still in use, including aircraft, ships, missiles and conventional munitions.

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* Records that would “seriously and demonstrably impair relations” between the United States and a foreign government.

The last exemption--informally known as the “State Department exemption"--was the most controversial within the government and is likely to generate the greatest number of complaints about continuing over-classification, officials said.

The State Department argued that release of many records of past relations with foreign powers--including some fairly old material--could compromise the United States’ ability to carry out effective and confidential diplomacy. Revelations about coup plotting in Iran in 1954 and Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s continue to haunt U.S. relations with those countries.

To protect against overzealous application of exemptions, the executive order contains a “balancing test” that would weigh public interest in the information against the potential damage to national security.

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Journalists or historians who believe that records have been wrongly withheld will be permitted to appeal to agency inspectors general or to an independent Information Security Policy Advisory Council. But there is no provision in the order for judicial review of classification decisions, an official said.

Review of existing documents may be a fiscal and manpower burden during the five-year phase-in period, officials said, but the new system ultimately is designed to save money. Every document that is generated will be presumed released after 25 years unless it is designated exempt at the outset under the new rules, officials said.

Revision of the national security classification program is “long overdue,” Aftergood said. “The system has become really dysfunctional. We’re protecting more and more trivia while genuinely sensitive stuff is vulnerable. The public can’t know that American intelligence agencies spend $28 billion a year, but the Russians had a pipeline into CIA headquarters for a decade. There’s a real lack of proportion in our security policy.”


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