A congressional commission chided the government Tuesday for keeping too many secrets, even blaming a “culture of secrecy” for feeding conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy.
“A majority of the American people think that the CIA was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.
“That is a very bad thing.”
Moynihan, chairman of the 12-member commission, had a blunt message to the agencies that classify mountains of government information each year: “Knock it off!”
The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, after a two-year review, urged that classification be kept to “an absolute minimum.”
The report found that as a legacy of the Cold War far too much official information is unnecessarily stamped “secret” and then locked away for decades by government bureaucrats and functionaries.
Moynihan suggested that many of the Kennedy conspiracy theories could have been debunked long ago if historians had access to the government’s still-secret files.
“Americans are familiar with the tendency to overregulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of regulation,” said the commission, which found that 2 million federal officials and 1 million people in industries working with the government have authority to keep documents and data secret.
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a commission member, said none of the panel’s members “wants to make it more difficult for national security officials to carry out their responsibilities.”
However, he said, “we have gone overboard. We do not always carry out our responsibility to balance protecting national security secrets while making public as much information as we can.”
The bipartisan panel unanimously approved the report and delivered it to the White House on Monday.
Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, also a member of the panel, said that “excessive secrecy can and will erode respect for government.”
But even with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Combest said, “espionage is not over. Threats against the United States, its citizens, its soldiers and its vital national interests are not over.”
John Podesta, a White House deputy chief of staff and member of the commission, said President Clinton welcomes the proposals.
The commission recommended legislation defining what should be kept classified, and creation of a National Declassification Center to oversee federal policy on secrets.