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Err on the side of openness

After 30 years of court battles, hearings, reports and pressure from some quarters of Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency has finally acknowledged what many in Washington already knew or suspected: The United States spends about $26.6-billion each year on intelligence-gathering.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government is running out of credible reasons for keeping vast quantities of information out of public view. Yet to this day, the government remains excessively secretive. Informal _ yet fairly accurate _ estimates of the U.S. espionage budget have circulated for years, but it wasn't until the government was hit with a strong lawsuit that it made the decision to confirm them.

The CIA has also been resisting the release of information about overseas covert operations it promised years ago to declassify. Far too many documents about the U.S. role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala, for instance, still remain classified. And despite recommendations by a bipartisan federal commission urging more openness, the government is still zealously restricting new information, even when it may not be in the public interest to do so.

To be sure, not all documents can be made public. Information that could jeopardize national security _ or the lives of informants

and agents _ certainly must be protected. The problem is deciding what information should be withheld and for how long.

A sensible solution to the dilemma has been proposed by Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jesse Helms. The liberal lawmaker from New York and his Republican rival from South Carolina have proposed legislation that strikes a reasonable balance between the public's right to know and the government's obligation to prevent damaging information from falling into the wrong hands.

The Government Secrecy Act of 1997 would force more information into the open by clarifying _ and in some cases limiting _ the circumstances under which the government is allowed to classify information. It would also hold government agencies accountable for their decisions to keep secrets. Equally important, it would impose a limit on the length of time information can be withheld legally from the public, and force the government to err on the side of openness when there is a question about whether a document should be classified.

The Senate bill and an equivalent measure in the House of Representatives have been stalled in committee since the spring, and it is unlikely any action will be taken on either piece of legislation this year. That is a shame. Too much secrecy hurts democracy. It breeds mistrust and resentment and undermines the credibility of government.

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