Secrecy News

Jesse Helms on Secrecy

The late Senator Jesse Helms, who died on July 4, was an arch-conservative opponent of civil rights legislation, arms control treaties and other liberal causes. Though none of the obituaries mentioned it, he was also an outspoken critic of government secrecy.

“This government is shot through with willy-nilly applications of secrecy,” he complained in January 1995 at the first meeting of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (the Moynihan Commission), of which he was a member.

“I’ve been fussing for years about the application of secrecy on just about every document in this town,” he said then.

Senator Helms co-sponsored secrecy reform legislation based on the recommendations of the Moynihan Commission. That legislation was not enacted. But as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he helped pass legislation to require disclosure of most U.S. arms sales to foreign governments, which was signed into law.

“Secrecy all too often … becomes a political tool used by Executive Branch agencies to shield information which may be politically sensitive or policies which may be unpopular with the American public,” he testified at a Senate hearing in 1997. “Worse yet, information may be classified to hide from public view illegal or unethical activity.”

“On numerous occasions I, and other Members of Congress, have found the Executive Branch to be reluctant to share certain information, the nature of which is not truly a ‘national secret,’ but which would be potentially politically embarrassing to officials in the Executive Branch or which would make known an illegal or indefensible policy,” Sen. Helms said.

0 thoughts on “Jesse Helms on Secrecy

  1. Did Helms’s dislike of secrecy and legislative forays in the area just span the 1990s — which is the time period of all his actions you describe in your post? Perhaps most pertinent, was he at all interested in the issue during the Reagan presidency? Put another way: was he concerned about secrecy qua secrecy, or did he fundamentally disagree with the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, and did he see the efforts you described as attempts both to rail against those who disagreed with him, and to insinuate that those agencies he really disliked — like the State Dept — were involved in some nefarious scheme?

    If he did have a long record of promoting open government, I think that’d be wonderful and worth promoting, but between his work with the Reagan Administration in Latin America and his history as a segregationist in North Carolina, I kind of doubt it.

  2. Thanks for the excellent question and observation. I can’t immediately point to any criticism of secrecy from him during the Reagan years, when it would have served a useful purpose. It may be that he opposed secrecy not as a matter of principle, but only when it suited his political agenda. Alternatively (and more charitably), maybe his appreciation of the virtues of open government developed over time and only came to fruition late in his career.

  3. Helms was one of the sponsors of the legislation mandating an absolute 30 year rule for publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series and creating a statutory advisory committee. I always thought he did so for the wrong reasons, that is, a deeply held suspicion of the “liberal” State Dept. Other conservatives have also opened records for that reason. In the 1950’s Sen. William Knowland insisted that all the material on Yalta be published since he was sure FDR had made some secret treaties.

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