US report reveals: secrets need a short life cycle

Will Britain ever adopt the strange Yankee notion that the people have a right to know what their government is up to?
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The Independent Online
Labour and Conservatives alike say they are in favour of open government. Yet Britain continues to have not only one of the world's strictest systems of classification for government documents, but more generally a climate of secrecy in which the burden of proof is on those who ask to see public records. The presumption is never in favour of those who want to know what really happened.

Recently both British political parties have been quick to borrow new ideas from the United States. Will they now adopt a strange Yankee notion: that the presumption ought to be that the people have a right to know unless it can be shown that there is a reason why public matters should be kept private?

The US is rightly seen as a model of openness in comparison with the choking pall of secrecy that hangs over Britain. Now in Washington a high-powered Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy has just published a ringing call for even greater openness. It points to the dangers of the cult of secrecy created by two world wars, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. And it concludes that "information shall be classified only if there is a demonstrable need to protect the information in the interests of national security". Classifying documents as secret, top secret and the like should be kept "to an absolute minimum".

The report reveals that there are currently over 1.5 billion pages of records in government vaults that are over 25 years old and still classified. The commission, chaired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a Democrat, was made up of men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the arch-conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina; the veteran Democratic foreign affairs expert, Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana; John Deutch, the recently retired Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and even - surely unthinkable in Westminster or Whitehall - a journalist, Ellen Hume, formerly of The Wall Street Journal.

The Commission proposes the creation of a National Declassification Centre, to declassify documents as fast as they are classified. And it suggests a "life cycle for secrets". Normally documents should not remain secret for more than 10 years, it says: in no case should they remain secret for more than 30 years, unless it can be demonstrated that actual damage would be done to specific individuals or to continuing government programmes by making them public.

The report includes an historical appendix by Senator Moynihan on how "a vast secrecy system" came into existence. From the time of World War I, Moynihan shows, the US recurrently faced espionage and occasionally sabotage, often carried out by first generation immigrants, first from Germany, then from Russia, and later from elsewhere. This led to a "Hun within" syndrome, to measures designed to check loyalty, and ultimately to the witch hunts of the years after World War II. Where normally, Moynihan points out, the existence of secrets requires that they be defended, in the American experience, secrets came about because of the perceived threat.

The threat, and the secrecy, redoubled after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Evidence has recently been found in the Soviet archives, for example, that John Reed, the Harvard graduate who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World (made into the film Reds) was a Soviet agent, paid just over one million roubles on January 22, 1920 in gold, jewels and other valuables for Party work in the US.

Moynihan points out that the Cold War presented the United States with an "awful dilemma". "To preserve an open society," he writes, "it was deemed necessary to take measures that in significant ways closed it down. A culture of secrecy evolved."

There are striking examples of the dangers of secrecy, even in the relatively open atmosphere of Washington. In 1957, for example, the "Gaither report" predicted that there would be a "missile gap" between the US and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. "The missile gap turned out not to exist, but the aftermath of a massive scare echoed on and on", affecting US strategic thinking and swelling defence budgets for decades.

"The Cold War is over," the Senator writes. "Yet this most pervasive of Cold War era regulation persists." There is massive over-classification of documents, and "the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security but with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another".

The perpetuation of Cold War secrecy, Moynihan argues, is not only expensive and absurd; it is dangerous. "The United States will be best served by the largest possible degree of openness." To do otherwise, he says, "is to invite preoccupation with passing conspiracy, after all we have sacrificed in this century to destroy sustained conspiracies that might very well have destroyed us".

As so often, the apparent parallels between Britain and America are deceptive. If American secrecy has reflected an immigrant society's paranoia about loyalty, British secrecy results from the instinctive assumption of a governing class - politicians and civil servants alike - whose democratic instincts are weak, that what is done in our name is none of our business. Will Tony Blair's Labour understand any better than Harold Wilson's the fearful cost we pay in many ways for keeping what is happening in our society from ourselves?