Navy officials said yesterday that the service is considering ending the use of a controversial secrecy pledge that has been required of federal employees with access to classified information.
The officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Navy is considering the action because of recent restrictions enacted by Congress and because of lawsuits charging that the secrecy pledge has inhibited the legitimate flow of information to Congress, particularly by government whistle blowers.
One Navy source noted that holders of security clearances are already covered by laws that prohibit the leaking or passing along of classified information. He said that in light of the likely policy change, the Navy has stopped taking disciplinary action against any employee who has refused to sign a secrecy pledge.
However, government officials said yesterday that the Navy, the Air Force and a major government defense contractor have continued to ask employees with security clearances to sign the pledges despite an administration order last month that the practice be halted.
One government official, who asked not to be identified, estimated yesterday that up to 100,000 government workers may have signed the pledges in the four weeks since the order was issued. The pledges affect about 200,000 federal employees.
The secrecy pledges, which are known as Standard Form 189 for federal employees and Standard Form 189A for contractors, were introduced in 1983 by the Reagan administration to stop leaks of sensitive information. Critics have charged that in addition to the whistle-blower problem, the wording of the pledges is confusing, leading to questions about what might constitute a breach.
Last Dec. 21, when Congress approved the continuing resolution providing ongoing funding for the government, it attached a rider providing that the administration suspend use of fiscal 1988 budget funds to implement or enforce the secrecy pledges. Unless further action is taken, the secrecy pledges would go back into effect Oct. 1, at the end of the fiscal year.
On Dec. 29, Steven Garfinckel, head of the Information Security Oversight Office, sent letters to 68 federal agencies telling them to "immediately" stop asking their employees and employees of federal contractors to sign the secrecy pledges.
Garfinckel said yesterday that although the agencies were told to suspend collection of signatures "immediately, we didn't expect them to be able to do it immediately . . . . When you're dealing with agencies that operate on a worldwide basis, with tens of thousands of facilities that have to be notified, it takes a while. It's a question of logistics.
"I know they've gotten the letters, but the larger agencies and contractors have to get the word out," Garfinckel said.
Air Force spokesman Capt. Dan Woolley confirmed that the Air Force has received Garfinckel's letter and is still working on instructions to send to the field offices. "It hasn't gone yet, but it will go shortly -- within the next couple of days," Woolley said.
He said he does not know how many employees have signed pledges since the Garfinckel letter was issued, but he said those forms will be kept on file. In his Dec. 29 letter, Garfinckel said that all existing pledges should remain on file.
A Navy spokesman confirmed that employees are still being asked to sign the pledges because of a "bureaucratic holdup." He said Garfinckel's instructions are "taking time to float to the top" but said the issue may be resolved some time this week. He also said he does not know how many employees have been affected.
Meanwhile, Jonna Manes, a spokeswoman for Raytheon Corp., a major defense contractor, confirmed yesterday that Raytheon is continuing to ask employees with access to classified information to sign the pledges. She said some 20,000 Raytheon employees have security clearances.
"We are complying with the Defense Investigative Service, which requires us to sign," Manes said, adding that the company never received word to suspend the secrecy pledges. A spokesman for DIS said he could make no comment.