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Congressional Record: October 27, 1999 (Senate)
Page S13258-S13287


      By Mr. MOYNIHAN:
  S. 1801. A bill to provide for the identification, collection, and 
review for declassification of records and materials that are of 
extraordinary public interest to the people of the United States, and 
for other purposes; to the Committee on Governmental Affairs.

[[Page S13262]]

              public interest declassification act of 1999

 Mr. MOYNIHAN. Mr. President, today I rise to introduce the 
Public Information Disclosure Act, a bill that seeks to add to our 
citizens' knowledge of how and why our country made many of its key 
national security decisions since the end of World War II. This bill 
creates a mechanism for comprehensively reviewing and declassifying, 
whenever possible, records of extraordinary public interest that 
demonstrate and record this country's most significant and important 
national security policies, actions, and decisions.
  As James Madison once wrote, "A people who mean to be their own 
governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." 
Acquiring this knowledge has become increasingly difficult since World 
War II's end, when we witnessed the rise of a vast national security 
apparatus that encompasses thousands of employees and over 1.5 billion 
classified documents that are 25 years or older. Secrecy, in the end, 
is a form of regulation. And I concede that regulation of state secrets 
is often necessary to protect national security. But how much needs to 
be regulated after having aged 25 years or more?
  The warehousing and withholding of these documents and materials not 
only impoverish our country's historical record but retard our 
collective understanding of how and why the United States acted as it 
did. This means that we have less chance to learn from what has gone 
before; both mistakes and triumphs fall through the cracks of our 
collective history, making it much harder to resolve key questions 
about our past and to chart our future actions.
  On the other hand, greater openness makes it more possible for the 
government to explain itself and to defend its actions, a not so 
unimportant thing when one recalls Richard Hofstader's warning in his 
classic 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics: "The 
distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents 
see conspiracies here and there in history, but they regard a 'vast' or 
'gigantic' conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost 
transcendent power as the motive force in historical events." A poll 
taken in 1993 found that three-quarters of those surveyed believed that 
President Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy involving the CIA, 
renegade elements of our military, and organized crime. The Grassy 
Knoll continues to cut a wide path across our national consciousness. 
The classified materials withheld from the Warren Commission, several 
of our actions in Vietnam, and Watergate have only added to the 
American people's distrust of the Federal government.
  Occasionally, though, the government has drawn back its cloak of 
secrecy and made substantial contributions to our national 
understanding. In 1995, the CIA and the NSA agreed to declassify the 
Venona intercepts, our highly secretive effort that ranged over four 
decades to decode the Soviet Union's diplomatic traffic. Much of this 
traffic centered on identifying Soviet spies, one of the cardinal 
preoccupations of that hateful era we call "McCarthyism." These 
releases made at least one thing crystal clear: Their timely release 
decades ago would have dimmed the klieg lights on many who were 
innocent and shown them more brightly on those who truly were guilty. 
It would have been an important contribution during a time when the 
innocent and the guilty were ensnared in the same net.
  Today, Congress plays a pivotal role in declassification through so-
called "special searches." Generally, these involve a member of 
Congress or the White House asking the intelligence community to search 
its records on specific subjects. These have ranged from Pinochet to 
murdered American church women to President Kennedy's assassination. 
However, these good intentions often produce neither good results nor 
good history. Sadly, most of these searches have been done poorly, 
costing millions of dollars and consuming untold hours of labor. 
Several have been performed repeatedly. Special searches on murdered 
American church women, for example, have been done nine separate times. 
Yet there are still several important questions that have yet to be 
answered. The CIA alone has been asked to do 33 "special searches" 
since 1998.
  Part of the problem is that Congress lacks a centralized, rational 
way of addressing these requests. This bill establishes a nine-member 
board composed of outside experts who can filter and steer these 
searches, all the while seeking maximum efficiency and disclosure.
  The other part of the problem lies in how the intelligence community 
has conducted these searches. It is imperative that searches are 
carried out in a comprehensive manner. This is not only cheaper in the 
long run but produces a much more accurate record of our history. One 
cannot do Pinochet, for example, and not do Chile under his rule at the 
same time. To do otherwise skews history too much and creates too many 
blind spots, all leading to more questions and more searches. This does 
a disservice not only to those asking for these searches but to the 
American people who have to pay for ad hoc, poorly done 
declassification. If we do it right the first time, then we can forgo 
much inefficiency.
  Many of these special searches ask vital questions about this 
nation's role in many disturbing events. We must see, therefore, that 
they are done correctly and responsibly. This legislation, if passed, 
would improve Congress' role in declassification, making it an 
instrumental arm in the de-cloaking and re-democratization of our 
national history. Indeed, anything less would cheat our citizens, 
undermine their trust in our institutions, and erode our democratic 

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