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Declassification Board: Named but Unfunded

Panel on Government Secrecy Unable to Operate

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005; Page A15

In Washington, it takes many ingredients to make a bureaucracy: a measure of authorizing legislation, a pinch of personnel and, of course, money to help it rise.

The five-year-old Public Interest Declassification Board is still one element short of the recipe, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of advocates of open government.

Congress created the nine-member advisory panel in late 2000 to help the executive branch sort out which classified government documents should be made public, and when. It's a mission that has increased in importance since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as the government struggles to find a balance between the secrecy sometimes needed for national security and the openness a democracy depends on to work properly.

The declassification board was the only recommendation of a two-year commission on government secrecy led in the mid-1990s by then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) that made it into law. Passed partly as a tribute to Moynihan before he retired, the board existed in name only.

Supporters say it was a victim of timing. The outgoing Clinton White House wasn't interested in it, and the incoming Bush administration had other priorities.

"It never got off the ground as it was envisioned," said J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, the federal agency that will provide staff support to the board.

Nearly four years passed before the White House appointed its five members to the board in September 2004. The panel drew renewed interest last fall during the fight in Congress over restructuring the country's intelligence agencies. Earlier this year, Congress named two of its four members. Although two slots remain vacant, the board has enough members to meet.

But the White House has not requested any funds for it, and Congress has never appropriated any. There is no way to pay for materials or panelists' stipends or to foot the bill for the security clearances members will require.

A consortium of 19 government watchdog and advocacy groups sent a letter to President Bush and key congressional committees Friday urging the approval of funding.

"The board is important because it would help identify documents that truly should or should not be classified," says the letter, signed by representatives of the Project on Government Oversight, the National Taxpayers Union and other groups. "Too much secrecy hinders the operation of the government and hides problems that often need public disclosure to be remedied."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said the panel will make only nonbinding recommendations, but it is better than nothing.

"It is a White House advisory board, so it's hard for me to get too excited about it," Aftergood said. "But I do find it ironic that after going to all the trouble to vet and appoint the members, the White House and Congress have allocated no funds for it. I think it reveals the low esteem in which declassification is now held."

Leonard estimated the board would need less than $100,000, an amount he would have referred to as "decimal dust" when he worked at the Defense Department.

"In this town, there's a thousand good ideas that are all competing for very limited funding," he said. "It's frustrating, in that I don't believe there is a deliberate decision not to address this. But, rather, because it is such a small dollar figure, ironically that's what creates one of the biggest challenges -- because it's not the type of thing that normally garners attention."

Former representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.), appointed to the panel by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the board can play a useful role.

"There's a mountain of old and presumptively unnecessarily still-classified information in the bowels of the government," Skaggs said. "And for the sake of history and learning from past experience . . . it would be good to get as much of that disgorged as possible. If this board can help nudge that along, that would be a public service."

Other members of the panel include Chairman L. Britt Snider, a former inspector general at the CIA; Martin Faga, head of a corporation that manages federally funded research centers; Joan Vail Grimson, a former Senate and National Security Council staffer; Steven Garfinkel, a former director of the Information Security Oversight Office; Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, dean of the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law; and Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian.

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