Jesse Helms on Secrecy

07.05.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.