Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy

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Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, also called the Moynihan Secrecy Commission, was a bipartisan statutory commission in the United States created under Title IX of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995 (P.L. 103-236) to conduct "an investigation into all matters in any way related to any legislation, executive order, regulation, practice, or procedure relating to classified information or granting security clearances" and to submit a final report with recommendations. The Commission’s investigation was the first authorized by statute to examine government secrecy since the Wright Commission in 1957.

The Commission’s final report, issued on March 3, 1997, was unanimous. Among its key findings were

  • that secrecy is a form of government regulation
  • that excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when policy makers are not fully informed
  • the government is not held accountable for its actions
  • the public cannot engage fully in informed debate

Sen. Moynihan reported that approximately 400,000 new secrets are created per year at the top level alone—Top Secret—the disclosure of any one would cause, as defined by law, "exceptionally grave damage to the national security." [1] In 1994 it was estimated that the United States Government had over 1.5 billion pages of classified material that was 25 years old and older.

In 1995, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12958 regulating national security classification and declassification which established a system to declassify automatically information more than 25 years old, unless the Government took discrete steps to continue classification of a particular document or group of documents.


Cold War Secrecy

The Commission findings regarding government secrecy in the early Cold War period have led to a reevaluation of many public perceptions regarding the period. By 1950, the United States Government was in possession of information which the American public did not know: proof of a serious attack on American security by the Soviet Union, with considerable assistance from an enemy within. Soviet authorities knew the U.S. government knew. Only the American people were denied this information.[2]

One revelation of the VENONA intercepts is that many Americans who spied for the Soviet Union were never prosecuted. To do so the Government would have to reveal what it knew.[3] On 29 May 1946, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a high administration official a memorandum reporting “an enormous Soviet espionage ring in Washington." Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson was at the top of the list. Truman distrusted Hoover and suspected Hoover of playing political games. Acheson's inclusion at the top of the list automatically discredited other accusations which were on target, Alger Hiss and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. [1] In late August or early September 1947, the Army Security Agency informed the FBI it had begun to break into Soviet espionage messages. Truman had never been told of the existence of the Venona project, and always insisted Republicans had trumped up the loyalty issue. The first fact is, that a significant Communist conspiracy was in place in Washington, New York, and Hollywood. President Truman was almost willfully obtuse as regards American Communism.[4] There were no Communists in Kansas City politics where he came from. Apart from intellectual circles in Manhattan and a few metropolitan centers elsewhere, and the labor movement, Communists were unknown. Truman has been criticized for putting domestic politics above American security.

The prosecutors in the internal-security cases of the 1940s did not know they had not been given all, or even the best government evidence, against Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and others. The Venona materials would have been conclusive in establishing the cast of characters in the Soviet spy networks.[5] Government secrecy allowed critics of the Rosenberg and Hiss cases to construct elaborate theories about frame-ups and cover-ups. For years the Rosenbergs' defenders demanded that the government reveal its secrets about the case. When Secrecy Commission forced the disclosure of documents, the secrets revealed the government's case was even stronger.[6] "Over the years," said Ronald Radosh, "the Rosenbergs' defenders have loudly demanded the release of government documents on the case, only to deny the documents' significance once they are made public." [7] As archives of the Cold War are opened, the original case made against Soviet espionage in the United States has received ever more conclusive corroboration.[8]

National politics and national security are always to some extent interrelated, but in the years of the Truman presidency the relationship became problematic. Trust leeched out of the political system, loyalties waned, betrayal became common. Communism—as an indigenous force, as yet another manifestation of diaspora politics, or as an instrument of Soviet policy—achieved astonishing influence not in its own right, much less on its own behalf, but as an agent for poisoning American politics. The effects were felt for a generation or more; the reverberations are felt even today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Government secrecy, as the commission was discovering, played a large role in all this.[9]


The idea of loyalty [10] implies that there is much information within a bureaucracy which could be used to injure the Government, or the national interest if revealed by disloyal persons to hostile nations or, for that matter, to internal elements hostile to our “way of life.” It appears that the three-tiered gradation of today, Confidential/ Secret/Top Secret was adopted by the U.S. military from British forces in France in 1917, and was institutionalized with the Espionage Act of 1917. The U.S. Civil Service Commission, established by the Pendleton Act in 1883, was debarring persons relating to “loyalty” as late as 1921, when the United States formally terminated the World War I.

The Commission Report quotes Max Weber, "Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret...Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament—at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests." [11]

In March 1947 President Truman issued Executive Order 9835, establishing the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, providing uniform investigation standards and procedures, and authorizing the creation of Loyalty Review Boards across the Government. The Truman Order—based on the findings of an interdepartmental committee established in 1946—was superseded by President Eisenhower’s issuance of Executive Order 10450 in April, 1953, which provided that “[t]he appointment of each civilian officer or employee in any department or agency of the Government shall be made subject to an investigation,” and made each agency head responsible for ensuring that “the employment and retention in employment of any civilian officer or employee within the department or agency is clearly consistent with the interests of the national security.” While abolishing the Truman Order program, including the Loyalty Review Boards within the Civil Service Commission, the new Order also made clear that “the interests of national security require that all persons privileged to be employed in the departments and agencies of the Government, shall be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.”

In this manner, a broader “security” program was established across the Government. The political pressure had increased with the passage of legislation in 1950 “[t]o protect the national security of the United States by permitting the summary suspension of employment of civilian officers and employees of various departments and agencies. . . .” In addition, beginning in March 1948, the Attorney General’s List was published on a regular basis—with members of organizations included on such a list to be denied employment in the Federal government or defense industries as well as the right to a U.S. passport. During the 1952 presidential campaign, Dwight Eisenhower promised to root out Communists and other security risks from government and defense industry employment— suggesting that their presence had been tolerated too easily by the Truman administration despite the existence of rules to address “loyalty” concerns. In his first State of the Union address Eisenhower promised a new system “for keeping out the disloyal and the dangerous.” Executive Order 10450 soon followed. Senator Joseph McCarthy praised the new Executive Order. The New York Times reported, “The new program will require a new investigation of many thousands of employees previously investigated, as well as many more thousands who have had no security check.”

In November 1953, Attorney General Herbert Brownell would allege in a speech that Truman had nominated a Soviet spy—senior Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White—to serve as the U.S. Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund, despite what Brownell said was the President’s awareness of White’s involvement in Soviet espionage. And on December 3, 1953, President Eisenhower directed that a “blank wall be placed between Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and secret data”—marking the beginning of the process that led to the Atomic Energy Commission’s suspension of Oppenheimer’s security clearance later in December and its 4-to-1 decision on June 28, 1954, against restoring the clearance.[12]


  1. Testimony of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate Hearing on Government Secrecy, 7 May 1997.
  2. Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, Appendix A, The Cold War (1997).
  3. Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, Appendix A, The Experience of The Bomb (1997).
  4. Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, Chairmans Forward (1997).
  5. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience, (New Haven: Yale University Press 1998), pg. 54.
  6. Ibid, pg. 62.
  7. Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pgs. 471-72.
  8. Moynihan, Secrecy, pg. 52.
  9. Ibid, pg. 62.
  10. Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, Appendix A, Loyalty (1997).
  11. Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 233-34; Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), 1922.
  12. Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, Appendix A, A Culture of Secrecy (1997).

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