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The conundrum: share with public, but not terrorists

As a government committee sifts through Top Secret documents, it faces the dicey task of balancing the country's right to know with the danger of who might find out.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In a tightly guarded office that once housed the records of the Monica Lewinsky investigation, congressional staffers are sifting through the government's secrets.

The staffers, who work for a joint intelligence committee looking into the Sept. 11 attacks, are examining tens of thousands of documents from the CIA, FBI and other agencies to determine which ones should be released.

With every Secret or Top Secret page, they face a difficult choice.

They want to release as much as possible to allow an open discussion of intelligence lapses before Sept. 11. But they do not want to reveal sensitive details about spies and their methods while the United States is fighting a war against terrorists.

And this is only the first step. Once staffers and committee members decide they want a document released, they must persuade the Bush administration to declassify it.

Their problem is a new twist on an old Washington theme: What should the American people know and when should they know it?

The House-Senate intelligence hearings were scheduled to open to the public this week, but the committee postponed them until at least mid July because staffers have not finished reviewing the large volume of documents. Also, committee members want to be sure they don't violate a court order in the case of terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. Many of the documents are being used as evidence in that case.

The committee has not said much about its progress.

Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is co-chairman of the panel, said that he did not know how many documents the committee would try to declassify. But he cited one example, a CIA chart about the Sept. 11 hijackers, to illustrate the committee's work.

The CIA chart shows the hijackers' birthdates, nationalities and when and where they entered the United States. Never mind that those details -- and lots more -- have been widely published. The CIA chart was classified and could not be released.

"When I looked at it, I couldn't see what on that document required classification because most of the information could have been secured by reading the newspapers," Graham said in an interview.

And so the committee got the CIA's approval to declassify the chart so it can be released at the hearing.

Steven Aftergood, an official at the Federation of American Scientists who has sued the government to open secret documents, says he would like as much material opened as possible.

"In order to hold elected officials accountable, we need to know as much as can be safely disclosed," Aftergood said.

He said Graham voted to release the nation's intelligence budget several years ago but has not been an advocate for open policies since he became chairman last year.

"I've been frankly disappointed that as chairman of the intelligence committee, he has not advanced that policy goal," Aftergood said. "He is now in a position to make it happen -- but he has not done so."

Graham, a former Florida governor accustomed to the state's open records law, says he wants to release as much information as possible. To hold hearings without releasing at least some of the documents "would be like going to the movie and having every fourth frame blank," Graham said. "It would be hard to get a sense what the movie was about."

But he said it's difficult to be open during wartime. "There's no question that there is a tilt toward enhanced security when the nation is engaged in combat," Graham said.

His colleagues differ on how open the committee should be.

"There are terrorists listening, I am sure, and I don't want to do anything to aid and abet them," said Rep. Porter Goss, the Sanibel Republican who is co-chairing the inquiry with Graham.

But Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said the documents could soothe the nation's jitters by reassuring people that the government is fighting terrorism. The joint committee "plays a very important public role in calming people's fears," Dodd said.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the committee needs to be skeptical.

"Our first obligation is to protect the security of this country and the sources of all this information. We cannot compromise that," Durbin said. "But, secondly, we have to find ways to let the American public know that we are asking the hard questions."

-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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