When should a government document be secret?

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Jan. 18 editorial "Classified material" was a good summary of secret U.S. documents, but it also illustrated how slowly -- if at all -- the government sometimes works.

Thirteen years ago the Government Printing Office published a 178-page book on the same subject, titled "Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy." The commission was chaired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The report urged Congress to follow numerous recommendations to eliminate overclassification and minimize unnecessary classification in the future. Obviously, the report and the effort behind it have disappeared into the bureaucratic swamp. Someone now is trying to reinvent this particular wheel, but I doubt that it will roll any farther than Mr. Moynihan's effort did.

Gerald Mann, Alexandria

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The "Classified material" editorial left out an important feature of the executive order issued by President Obama last month. Under "Classification Standards," Part I, Section 1.1(b), the order states, "If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information, it shall not be classified."

As a retired CIA employee and crew member on the Navy ship Hughes Glomar Explorer, I've been trying for more than 18 months to get the agency's permission to publish the story of the CIA's 1974 mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, the K-129. I submitted the manuscript to the agency's Publications Review Board in June 2008. After four months, the CIA informed me that "not one page" could be published.

Since then, through the appeals process and a lot of additional research, I've been able to prove that almost all of the material in the book should be unclassified. Still, about a third of my book remains redacted. Why? The answer I get is that my book would "likely do serious damage to national security." I question the agency's concern, since it routinely asks me to forward revisions of my manuscript through normal, unprotected e-mail channels.

The events depicted in my manuscript are more than 35 years old. I'm hopeful that the Obama administration's new National Declassification Center will effectively eliminate frivolous classification of historical material that is no longer sensitive.

David H. Sharp, Edgewater


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