ADMINISTRATION officials have repeatedly cited "national security" as a reason to slow the flow of information to Congress and the public. Attempts are pending, for example, to restrict publication of unclassified scientific research and to undo the liberalizing amendments that Congress made to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1974. In conspicuous instances, however, the administration, after soliciting congressional and public reaction, has backed off. It set aside a proposal to make journalists get advance approval for national security "contacts." It took seriously the protests against its early retrograde proposals for controlling the intelligence agencies.
We cite this play because of recent indications that the administration is now entertaining second thoughts on the new executive order it is preparing on the highly delicate matter of classifying and declassifying national security information. Need it be stamped "secret"? Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III stated that overzealous bureaucrats had written too much secrecy into earlier drafts. "I think you'll find that that is being corrected," he declared.
The assurance is welcome, for the last draft that leaked out into public view, the one of Feb. 4, was deeply flawed. It repudiated a move toward openness that had been begun by President Eisenhower and continued by presidents Nixon and Carter. It represented the flowering of an unwarranted and unbecoming spirit of distrust of the public.
It seems that the intelligence agencies wanted more solid grounds on which to claim exemptions from making disclosures under the FOIA. No court has yet opened the doors the agencies wanted to close, but they made their bid anyway. Thus does the Feb. 4 draft ease the standard for classification by ending the requirement that the claimed harm of disclosure be "identifiable." Thus is eliminated, in declassification decisions, the "balancing test," which requires officials to weigh the public interest in disclosure against its claimed harm. There is plenty more wrong with the draft. These points suggest, however, how it might give wrong ideas to the folks with the rubber stamps. That's where the loss to the public lies.
The congressional intelligence committees and the House subcommittee on government information have weighed in with their objections, as have groups concerned with freedom of information and civil liberties. So the administration has a reasoned basis on which to thoroughly rewrite that Feb. 4 draft. It is good to have Mr. Meese's word that the job is being done.