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White House Lifts the Lid on 44 Million Classified Documents

November 11, 1994|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After decades of dispute and delay, the White House on Thursday approved the declassification of 44 million documents, many of them more than half a century old.

President Clinton signed an executive order making available to researchers and the public a potential trove of history and trivia, including 21 million pages of military documents from World War II and 23 million pages from the post-war period. Among the papers are 5.8 million pages from the Army's secret Vietnam War files.

The White House, in a statement, called the release "an important step toward creating a more open and accountable government" but critics said it was a gesture that provides too little much too late.

The 44 million documents are just a fraction of the 325 million pages of classified material from before 1964 stored at the National Archives and hundreds of millions more held by the Pentagon, the CIA and other executive branch agencies.

"There are literally billions of pages of classified documents in government files. This is barely a dent in the backlog of secret Cold War files," said Steven Aftergood, who follows government secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists.

The late President Richard Nixon promised an "immediate and systematic declassification" of World War II documents--in 1972. But because of bureaucratic inertia and opposition from the military and intelligence services, it took until this week to begin the process. And the process will take many more years to complete.

Thursday's order was the result of months of wrangling within the Clinton Administration over whether to go forward with the bulk release of aging records. Archives officials said it is physically impossible to review each page in the thousands and thousands of storage boxes holding the papers, and they have pushed for declassifying them in large chunks.

But intelligence officials objected to bulk release, arguing that intelligence sources and methods might be revealed and saying that some system must be found to protect secrets that predate even the 1947 creation of the CIA.

The White House National Security Council delayed action repeatedly, finally giving its approval to the declassification of the first bunch of documents a few days ago.

Part of the delay was caused by conflict over the terms of a second, broader order requiring the declassification of virtually all government records 25 years old and older. Work continues on that order, a senior White House official said, although it is expected to be ready for Clinton's signature later this month.

Among the World War II papers declassified Thursday are 1.7 million pages from the Army Air Forces; 112,000 from the Office of Censorship; 415,000 from the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA); 7.5 million pages of records from U.S. European occupation authorities; and 9.5 million from the Mediterranean theater of operations and the European command.

The post-war files include 1.7 million pages of correspondence from the Bureau of Ships, 5.6 million pages from the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and 1.2 million from the Foreign Agricultural Service.

The papers will be available in 30 days at the Archives and other federal records centers.

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