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Bill Moyers

Investigative Reports 12/22/03

Washington Confidential

In the early days of the Civil War, President Lincoln cut a secret deal with a man named William Lloyd. For $200 a month, Lloyd agreed to sneak behind Confederate lines, gather intelligence, and send reports back to Lincoln. But, at war's end, the government refused to pay him. His estate sued, to no avail. "The service stipulated by the contract was a secret service," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in October 1875. "The employment and the service," the court added, "were to be equally concealed."

As the Lloyd case suggests, the government has been keeping secrets for a long time. Indeed, the Founding Fathers proved adept at keeping a secret or two. President George Washington designated some records as "confidential" or "secret." In the early 20th century, Congress passed the Defense Secrets Act of 1911. Secrecy that proved crucial during World War II--including the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb--persisted after the war.

Much is kept secret in the government's security classification program, covering such matters as military operations, weapons technology, and diplomatic and intelligence activities. Historically, presidents issue executive orders to classify records. The first such order, No. 8381, defining "certain vital military and Naval installations and equipment," was issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in March 1940. More important, at least for public access, President Truman in 1951 created a government-wide security classification system expanding classification authority to non-military agencies.

Ironically, one of the most secretive of presidents, Richard Nixon, issued a 1972 order requiring a systematic review of records for possible declassification after 30 years. More recently, President Clinton issued an order that led to declassification of an astounding 900 million pages of records. Last March, President Bush kept the disclosure structure but made it easier to reclassify information previously made public. -Christopher H. Schmitt and Edward T. Pound