When President Clinton announced three years ago that he was ordering automatic declassification of millions of the government’s oldest secrets, he didn’t mention the blanket exemption for the FBI.
FBI officials defended the previously undisclosed exemption, saying it was essential because of the mammoth size of its files, 6.5 million cubic feet, in which classified and unclassified records are mingled, often without any “Top Secret,” “Secret” or “Confidential” labels to show which were supposed to deal with national security. Everything from the bureau’s oldest foreign counterintelligence files to musty stolen car and bank robbery records is covered.
No other government agency--not the CIA or the super-secret National Security Agency--won such a pass. In fact, officials said, these agencies are still waiting for Clinton to formally approve narrower exemptions for them.
Clinton’s 1995 decree limited the classification of new documents and prescribed sanctions for violations of the order, but the automatic declassification of old records by 2000 was the centerpiece.
The plan envisioned exemptions for the government’s most sensitive records, such as the millions of pages detailing the CIA’s covert actions, but these were to be granted after a complex process that calls for “a specific date or event” when the exemptions are to end.
The arrangement first came to light in court papers last month and was laid out in detail in a memo obtained last week under the Freedom of Information Act.
Critics of government secrecy said in recent interviews that the exemption was legally questionable because it has no cutoff date and because the FBI used federal privacy law rather than any national security concerns to justify it.