Interview with Congressman John E. Moss
Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee
Tuesday, April 13, 1965


George Berdes:Congressman, I was wondering if we could start by briefly analyzing the situation that prevailed and which led to the formation of your subcommittee -- the circumstances that dictated its activity and operation.

Congressman Moss:I think the circumstances were primarily the relationship of the Executive departments and agencies with the Congress itself.I came to Washington in 1953 as the freshman member of a minority party and was subsequently appointed a member of the Post office and Civil Service Committee; within three or four weeks the old "numbers game" started.You may recall that the specific development involved charges leveled against the Truman administration citing X number of federal employees who had been dismissed for "security reasons."This was disturbing to me because I had every confidence that the Truman administration had been diligent in administering the laws and had attempted to hire loyal Americans.I insisted in committee that we get the facts from the Civil Service Commission.Well, the Commission refused to supply the information requested by the committee.This was my first experience with an agency refusing to respond to the legitimate demands of the legislative body.In my state, California, I had never encountered this type of action in my service in the state legislature.When the Democrats gained control of the House in 1955 I secured membership on the Government Operations Committee.I asked Congressman William Dawson of Illinois, chairman of that committee, if we couldn't investigate activities of departments in withholding information.I was convinced that if there was such a readiness to withhold from Congress, they must be withholding on a massive basis from the public and from others with less leverage to force the production of information.Congressman Dawson selected Dr. Wallace Parks, who made a preliminary study, and came back with the recommendation that a special subcommittee be created.I was selected to chair it.That's how the investigation into information activities was started.

George Berdes:A developing pattern of withholding information was quite noticeable?

Congressman Moss:No, it was the case of a freshman member being somewhat outraged over Executive arrogance.A cooperative chairman, Congressman Dawson, agreed that it was time Congress took a look at the problem of information policy in the Executive branch and in the independent agencies of government.

George Berdes:Did your personal interest in this matter stem from a background of news work at all?

Congressman Moss:No, I've never worked on a newspaper.I have never attempted to write or report before coming to Congress.I was a businessman.I was engaged in a real estate brokerage, but I have strong convictions that, as a representative of the people, I had a right to know what goes on in the government.And I have also a conviction that the people I represent need to know what goes on in government.

George Berdes:It is your firm conviction then that the electorate have not only the right but the need to be informed?Is that correct?

Congressman Moss:Oh, yes. I think there's a positive need for the electorate to have all information consistent with our security.

George Berdes:Congressman, over the course of the subcommittee's work since 1955, what have you come to judge as the more critical obstacles to reporting the extremely complex thing known as the federal government, as it has been reflected in the committee's hearings and findings.

Congressman Moss:Well, of course, the greatest obstacle is the claim of privilege because of security involvement.I'm convinced that we must have a tight program to protect security-sensitive information.But I'm equally convinced that more is improperly classified under the excuse of security than is properly classified.There's a widespread abuse.I know of no way that this can be overcome.It is a problem that we will continue to live with.It is complicated by the willingness of Congressional committees to accept executive judgments on classification.The Armed Forces Committees, the Appropriations Committees, the Foreign Affairs Committees--both the House and the Senate--will routinely accept without challenge the Executive classifications.And while I recognize that the Executive has the right and the authority to classify, I do not recognize that they have any right to classify for the Congress.The Congress can accept as advisory the classification judgments of the Executive, but I don't think the Congress is bound to accept them without question.

George Berdes:I think it's commonly accepted that an alert and aggressive news press is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, defense against excessive and irresponsible secrecy, against the abuse of secrecy for national security.From your observation, and again on the basis of your subcommittee's findings, are the Washington correspondents competent and intelligent and knowledgeable enough to carry out this awesome responsibility?

Congressman Moss:A great many of them are.However, many are not.I have had hearings and I have participated in hearings at which the men and women covering them failed to brief themselves sufficiently to do an intelligent job of reporting the hearings.One fact of which I'm convinced is that the proliferation of government agencies and commissions and whatnot has created a massive structure which the press tries to cover with far too few men and women.To do the job properly they'd have to have a press corps much larger.As a result, there is an acceptance of handouts--the press releases of the departments.I don't know how we can change this.I have always felt in the committee that our objective is to make information available to those who seek it.I don't know how we could require government to hand it out.You couldn't reasonably expect an agency to boast of its shortcomings, and that's what we would be requiring them to do.

George Berdes:Have you discovered any failings, or inadequacies in the structure of the news press itself?

Congressman Moss:No.Well, I have never investigated the press.I don't feel Congress has the authority to investigate the press.I've been completely preoccupied with the study of government itself and the manner in which it makes information available to those who seek it.

George Berdes:What I meant was that sometimes it strikes me that the government does nothing more than just live upon some of the inadequate news evaluation standards, the newsgathering techniques, and the news writing techniques of the press.There is, for example, the tendency of the press to respond to the bizarre and the unique news event with larger headlines than they do, perhaps, to the quiet but extremely significant news story that doesn't have that quality or sparkle.

Congressman Moss:This is the perfect point to illustrate the whole question of news management.The make-up of the paper, the placement of the story, the emphasis given is a judgment, a management judgment, that is not the responsibility of the reporter covering Washington.I think we could go over to the Capitol and read the tickers and find that the reporters send out far more, and in greater detail, than many of the papers in the country use. I think these are the management judgments.And they're partly economic judgments which revolve around what to them is a key question:what's going to stimulate the public and increase the demand for papers?To the newscaster or commentator on radio or television the question is basically the same:how do you hold a larger audience; build and hold it?News is exploited for a variety of reasons and profit is one of them.Competition certain has a part in the drive always to be somewhat sensational.The commentator who plays it in a low key, factual reporting of the important news of the day isn't going to enjoy as widespread an audience as the commentator who tends to dramatize and to demagogue a little in presenting the news.

George Berdes:Within your concern for a free flow of government information, is there the implied position that the press should be the censor of government, in the sense that Thomas Jefferson envisioned the role of the press, the watchman on the wall?

Congressman Moss:I think it must be.I don't concede that the press has any right greater than that of any individual American.They have no right of access any greater than John Q. Citizen.But they do have a responsibility to their readers, to give them the truth and as much of it as is available.Now, the editorial judgments, the evaluations, should take place in the editorial columns and not in the news columns; that's a matter with which the reader can agree or disagree.But the facts should always be there.And we should see to it here in Washington that government makes those facts available when they're sought after.

George Berdes:You say that the role of the press should be that of giving the reader as much information as is available.What, exactly, do you mean by that?Isn't that the sort of hedge behind which the Pentagon and the State Department hide, in the sense that they pull down the screens of secrecy and say "this is not available?"

Congressman Moss:Well, what I meant to say was "as much as should be available."And I'm engaged, and have been for the last 10 years, in seeing that the maximum consistent with our security is available.Now I think, when we talk of the areas of withholding, we're really talking about a very minute fraction of the total information that is developed in Washington, D.C. or anywhere else in the world.The effort in control is not a broad, sweeping effort.Actually, it's a very confused area.Part of the control is imposed, not because of security classifications, but because certain doctrines are falsely worshipped, like the doctrine of the safeguarding of Executive papers in order to encourage free and candid discussion within departments and agencies.I think it's a lot of hogwash.I don't think that you have to assure people in the Executive department that everything they say or write will be privileged and kept from public view if you want to have candid views.In the Legislative branch, we have to take positions quite openly, we have to advocate quite openly, and we hazard the wrath of the voters every two years.The experience of going back to them has convinced me one, that they're fair and two, that they're inclined to be somewhat objective.But the Executive always feels that they have to cover up these informal exchanges and expressions of opinion.Once an action is taken, once the opinion has gone into an official policy, I think the whole body of opinion should be available.I think we have to be able to evaluate what went into a decision as well as the decision itself.

George Berdes:This is what you mean by an informed electorate; that they do have all of the facts available upon which to base their decision?

Congressman Moss:All of the facts.I think it's very important in the area of security, and I think we have to balance the security achieved through secrecy with the loss of secrecyfor the future through a lack of support or understanding by an electorate, which, in the final analysis, is a self-governing body of people.I think it's important that the people, before they vote for the next Congress, have enough facts on what we're doing in Vietnam, on the military posture of this nation, on where we stand vis-à-vis the Russians in space, so that they can determine whether, in my legislative voting, I have done a wise or a foolish thing.I think it's important before the next presidential election that they have a maximum of information, even though it may be somewhat sensitive to the security of this nation, in evaluating the activities of Lyndon Johnson as president of the United States, and of his Cabinet, in giving guidance to this nation.It's so easy, if we can classify and say "This deals with security," to embark on a course which might destroy the security of the nation by having us support very foolish men and a very foolish policy.Now, how do you achieve a balance that actually provides the necessary protection, the real hard security, and yet gives the people the information they need to evaluate?This is a very difficult area.

Sometimes I think that our excessive use of classification really brings into easy focus those areas where an unfriendly power should seek to gain the greatest information, and perhaps would diminish security.I know that in the application of science, the development of new technologies, that we have gone to the extreme in classifying and we have compartmentalized information to the point where men engaged in scientific disciplines are denied the opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas in easy, free exchange which is almost a must in science.And I think here we, perhaps, have deluded ourselves.I think we have lost security, rather than gained it.I can illustrate the point.We held hearings back in 1957 with Dr. Clifford Furnau who had been with the Bell Laboratories during their very successful development of the transistor.He told the committee how they rushed to get it out before the Defense Department could insist they classify it.He was convinced then--and now, nine years later, I'm convinced that he was right--that the wide availability of the transistor to American industry has led it to be utilized in undreamed of devices.Had it been controlled by the Department of Defense, restricted only to military applications, we would not have gained nearly as much as we have as a result of its widespread availability to industry.I think there are other instances, but we can't evaluate them because we don't know.

As you know, we don't even have consistency in classification of material between one department and another.Each has its own standards.We don't have personnel cleared government-wide.They're cleared for a department or an agency, and even then they need to demonstrate that they need to know before they have a right to much of the classified material in science and technology.And yet it's a puzzle to me how you can demonstrate a need to know something that you don't know about, and couldn't know about if classification has been successful in protecting it.These are some of the problems within government, within classified areas, and they become much greater when we try to extend them and try to have a public understanding, an ability of the electorate to evaluate what we're doing and where we're going.

George BerdesYou place a great deal of trust and confidence in that electorate.

Congressman Moss:We must trust it, because it has the ultimate power.It can throw governments out of office and it can change, each two years, the complete complexion of the Congress.And it isn't wise, on the part of those of us who are temporarily the custodians of a part of this power of the people, to ignore their need to know what we're doing.They could make tragic misjudgments, and that should be avoided.And it can only be avoided by having them fully informed.

George Berdes:Some of the newsmen with whom I've spoken, particularly those who work in sensitive areas in State and Defense repeatedly outlined various techniques and systems which were part of this whole secrecy thinking, even to the extent of bugging offices within the Pentagon to make sure that the people who are suspect--just suspect--of talking to newsmen aren't doing so.There is also a technique of intimidation aimed at any Pentagon official, who is, again, merely suspected but never officially tried or found guilty in any way, by passing over him for promotion.The practice is even more true of military personnel.The result, of course, is that this intimidation completely stifles the flow of news, the free flow, the all-encompassing picture; erased by this massive effort is not only the decision, but the controversy preceding it, that you're concerned with.

Congressman Moss:Oh, I think that classification to avoid controversy occurs far more frequently than classification to protect security.You don't want controversy, so classify it, bury it; that's the mentality we run into here.

George Berdes:Controversy in the sense of the facts being merely embarrassing?

Congressman Moss:Oh, personal embarrassment is to be avoided at any cost.

George Berdes:Mistakes, inaccuracies, interoffice operations?

Congressman Moss:Yes.

George Berdes:At the same time, some of the newsmen reflected some doubt about your subcommittee's ability to do anything about this, since it was a committee controlled by the same party as that of the Executive.Is that a legitimate complaint in your estimation?

Congressman Moss:That is not legitimate!I said under Eisenhower and I've repeated it time and time again:this is not a partisan problem.I think the first cases came up in George Washington's administration, and from time to time since there have been withholdings by the Executive from the Congress; I think there has always been management of information; it's inherent in the handling of information.The disturbing thing to me is the reluctance of people who encounter refusals and barriers to inform the committee.Yet there is not a man who covers the Pentagon, or the State Department, that can cite a single instance where the committee has broken faith with any newsman who has given us information.It isn't the Democratic party; it isn't Lyndon Johnson; it just happens that they're in control at this time.But the fact is that the very size of the federal government, the very size of the professional military establishment, the very size of a highly professional bureaucracy makes them almost an adversary to the people in the area of information.No one criticizes the man who succeeds in covering up controversy, but let him promote or provoke a little of it and he can be pulled up before congressional committees.All the pressure on him is to avoid controversy.So, he takes the comfortable course.If he has the authority to classify, he classifies.Then he has a massive mantle of protection coming into play and it costs us hundreds of millions of dollars just to protect the mass of highly over-classified information.

George Berdes:I think most of the newsmen I spoke to would agree with you in the sense that they see no sinister significance in news management itself.They see it, I think, basically as the attempt of any organization, corporation, or university to project as positive a picture as possible to the public.

Congressman Moss:Well, whenever you're going to prepare a press release, you must determine what information you're going to release.And then you have to write, so you're going to determine emphasis.Each step is a management judgment.And then when it goes out to the distribution center for the wires, it has to be determined whether they're going to send it now or wait until this evening, because it hasn't much importance.And when it's received in the office of the newspaper or radio station, they have to determine whether they're going to just briefly mention it or give it very prominent positioning in the paper, or sufficient time for detail in a broadcast.All of these, again, are management judgments.You can't avoid it.

George Berdes:That's right. And, again, I think most of the newsmen would agree with you.But where they begin to take exception in the matter of news management is at that point where it begins to become abusive.It's there that they contend so strenuously that secrecy is irresponsibly used and results in their having to engage in a type of guerrilla warfare.

Congressman Moss:Well, there's no denying that.We could make a profession out of the whole security pattern.Security specialists are everywhere now and they have to justify their positions; beyond that, we have all the internal pressure to keep this thing going forever.In the final analysis, however, I think we lose far more than we gain by it.

George Berdes:I was wondering if we could return for a moment to the delicate line you talked about--the delicate line that has to be drawn between the public's right to know and the government's legitimate claim of secrecy for national security.Can you offer any sort of guidelines as to how that line might be drawn in the most effective and proper way?

Congressman Moss:Of course, it becomes a matter of judgment.I would say that war plans would have to be given the very highest classification and the greatest protection.I also think the day-to-day negotiations with foreign governments must be conducted in relative secrecy.Even though it might not be embarrassing to our government, the details of these negotiations can't be published because others would object and we would not be able to continue discussions.So, in the day-to-day conduct of foreign affairs, in the protection of war plans, and then in weapons systems I think security is not only necessary but justified.And I also maintain that security should be afforded in these areas as long as is possible.Too often, however, we make a great effort to continue the classification of this type of information beyond a realistic limit.For example, we had tight classification of the configuration of the original atomic bomb for many years after it was outmoded, where nothing was gained by the declassification.In addition, the committee was able to force the release of photographs that were only of historic interest.They had no security value, yet they were classified.We've encountered many instances of classification of information of this type long after it had significance.

I think that investigative material on any current case over in the Department of Justice certainly is entitled to the fullest protection.

Also, I think the information which our government requires our citizens to provide, and which would constitute an unnecessary invasion of the privacy of Americans, if revealed, is certainly entitled to protection.For example, we require our businesses to report much information which is of value only to a competitor.And since no public purpose is served by the release of such information, I think it should be afforded protection.

Up to a point, I also feel that protection should be granted to research of a nature that applies or involves some new technology.But in this connection we should use as a guide the judgment of our experts who say that the reasonable maximum time we can expect to be ahead of any other nation in science or technology is about two years.Consequently, we shouldn't continue classification beyond that point as they have over at the Atomic Energy commission.Material classified there is available almost anywhere in the world today, and yet it remains classified.

I don't know whether we can deal with it by leaving to individual judgment or whether we're going to have to have some sort of tribune examine classifications and determine whether they're improper.But I think we have to do something more than just leave it to individual judgments, as we have over too many years.

George Berdes:In your speech before the California Press Association conference in San Francisco in 1962, a speech that was reprinted in Aviation Week and Space Technology, you pointed out Executive Order 10-502 which controls military information and provides for appeals "against unjustifiable restrictions on information."What you said was that "this appeal procedure could also be used as a bare minimum system for press guidance, in exercising restraints the President calls for."Do you still feel that way?

Congressman Moss:No, because the appeals system has never worked and I have never been able to get the President to implement it.

George Berdes:My impression in talking to newsmen is that they're extremely skeptical of any type of system working.And then they have a strong reservation about even the President's appeals system.They see it as nothing more than another hurdle which would take weeks to resolve.

Congressman Moss:They're using an appeal procedure right now which is a very informal one but has had quite an effect in Washington.There are many, many reporters who will threaten to contact this committee when they encounter refusals.I can give you many instances where this has brought about information releases.The same thing is true of members of Congress who request information that is refused to them.They'll say:"Well, I'm going to give it to the Moss committee or the information committee; and they get their information.So, in effect, the committee performs more of a service function by handling routinely many individual complaints, with a very high average of success.

George Berdes:Is that a true appeals system?

Congressman Moss:No, it isn't.

George Berdes:As much as it is a threat system?

Congressman Moss:It's a threat.And I don't think it's adequate.I don't think that formalizing some sort of appeal on classification is wrong.Classifications, once they're on these documents, are there forever although they are supposed to be subject to review and downgrading.President Kennedy did order downgrading of material to be programmed, but it leaves a lot to be desired.It isn't the whole answer.The fact is, we do have classification, and if it's excessive, how do we establish that fact?We cannot do it in my committee.We can form a judgment that it is excessive, but I think that somewhere along the line, if we're going to have to live with the system, we'll need some right of appeal to challenge the classification.

George Berdes:Would you say that one of the objectives of your committee is to work toward such a system?

Congressman Moss:No.The main objective of my committee is to act as a forum by which we can discuss these problems.

George Berdes:Is it, in that sense, a generator of public understanding and pressure?

Congressman Moss:I think so.I think we can clearly point to the fact that before the committee was organized there was little public discussion of the subject.I think we have stimulated the discussion, and I think it is one of the big gains we can point to over the past 10 years.

George Berdes:Is that a unique function for a Congressional committee?

Congressman Moss:Yes, I think it is.I think the committee has been unique in a number of aspects.We're one of the few committees I know of to which both houses of the Congress will refer problems for further handling.We've had refusals referred to us by Senate committees, by Senators, as well as by House Committees and House members.

George Berdes:Earlier in our discussion, in reference to the whole question of secrecy, we mentioned specifically the question of a system to assure that excessive and irresponsible secrecy is not used.Some newsmen contend that it is the government's duty to classify and the reporter's duty to get the information.

Congressman Moss:That's an unfair game.The one reason we don't get complaints is that some reporters try to protect their sources.They'll have contacts in the Pentagon and the State Department, and they can get information.Their competitor cannot.They're not fighting for a public right; I am.They're fighting to protect their right. 

George Berdes:You said earlier though, Congressman, that the newspress, as such, had no more right than any one, individual.

Congressman Moss:They don't have.

George Berdes:Isn't the newspress, however, the sum total of the right of all citizens of the United States?

Congressman Moss:Yes, but do 5,000 individuals have a greater right than one individual?

George Berdes:What I meant was that they represent the fullness of the right of the public to know--the man in Dakota or California or Florida.The intelligent, interested citizen can't come to Washington.He depends on the newspress for information.So. Isn't it, in that sense, that they at least represent that man's right?

Congressman Moss:They represent that man's right, but they have no greater right.

George Berdes:But they have a right protected by the Constitution?

Congressman Moss:They have a right to print, without prior restraint, because that becomes censorship.

George Berdes:Isn't the right to information an inherent part of that right to publish?

Congressman Moss:Ah, that's what we argue about!I say that the right to print--freedom of the press--is empty and meaningless unless it inherently carries with it the right to information.But the Department of Justice doesn't agree with me.The Attorney General's office doesn't agree with me.None of the Executive departments agree with me.Dr. Harold Cross was a strong advocate of this view.It's like Executive privilege:the Executive branch says that the President has certain privileges and the right to control information.And maybe he does.I've never conceded that he does.But I do think that inherent in the right to speak and the right to print is the need to have the information.It must be protected by the Constitution.

George Berdes:What I began driving at, before I moved off of it for a moment, was the reporter's insistence and the determination to uncover as many of the facts as he can, plus the determination to report it as quickly as he can.Now, when this clash over secrecy occurs, the reporter has to make a difficult prudential judgment:Whether he, first of all, is going to use it at all; and secondly, whether he thinks there might be, perhaps, some secrecy involved which carries him to check it out with the proper government authority.If they disagree, he has to make another judgment.Do you feel that Washington correspondents are competent enough to make these decisions involving some of the information they uncover?

Congressman Moss:Oh, I think they're frequently as competent as the man who's made the decision to classify it.They can tell very quickly whether it's a matter protecting national security or personal security.I recall (and I've used this many times because it illustrates some of the arrogance of the Executive) Congressman Dan Flood, a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on military appropriations, was quite disturbed over certain modifications of aircraft made by the Pentagon.What was involved was taking DC-6s and 6-Bs and turning them into very deluxe private planes.Flood recalled that the specific request for appropriated dollars to do the work had been denied by the Congress.He knew that some planes were flying around that had been so modified, and he demanded pictures of the interiors.Finally, when they refused him, he contacted my committee and I finally told the Department of Defense that either they would give the pictures to Congressman Flood or we would afford them an opportunity in public to explain why they wouldn't give them.And so, they sent them over.They were stamped "SECRET" top and bottom, on every picture.To go back to Executive Order 10-501, that meant that the release of those pictures would gravely impair the security of the United States.That they would never do, you see.They might gravely impair the security of the officers who had ordered the modification.But to show the interior of a plane that was merely equipped to fly X number of passengers in relative luxury would not have any effect on the security of this nation.This was a very real abuse.The reporter getting those pictures didn't have to go back to ask anyone in the Pentagon to make the judgment that the classification was a lot of damn foolishness, nothing but a cover-up.There are many such instances where classifications are, on their face, improper.

George Berdes:Congressman, do you feel that the times in which we live are so critical as to call for a rethinking, a re-examination of our conventional concept of a free press in a free society?Does the cold war, the nuclear age require that we rethink our concepts of a free press more in terms of a responsible press?

Congressman Moss:Responsible under what criteria?

George Berdes:Well, responsible, certainly, in what I would consider their prime responsibilities:to the truth and to their readers.

Congressman Moss: Would we license then?

George Berdes:No; by no means.

Congressman Moss:I don't think you can rethink this under our system.If we're going to have a self-governing people, then I think we have to have a press that is free to be responsible or irresponsible on its judgment without being dictated to by government.We would hope always that the press is responsible and that it prints the truth.But there's a lot of competition to help the individual American keep informed.There are radio and television.He has the daily press, and he has news magazines, and he has books, and he has access to a tremendous mass of information.It's important that the government make as much available as the security of the nation permits.

I think the security achieved through the judgments of a well-informed electorate can sometimes be more significant than the security achieved through the application of a classification system.Here's where balance is needed.It's very, very difficult to achieve.You can't even write a directive on judgment. It depends on a selection of responsible, intelligent, and dedicated people.And unfortunately, we are drawing increasingly from professional fields in public administration where, too often, they are contemptuous of the public.They don't think the public understands.They haven't the confidence that the public can use information to make sound judgments.So, they distrust the public.I think a few more of them should go out to run for office and learn that the public does make pretty sound judgments, given the chance.


Portions of the above interview appear in the book
Friendly Adversaries:The
Press and the Government"

The John E. Moss Foundation would like to express its grateful appreciation to:

Dr. Andrew Tallon, Director
Marquette University Press
Professor of Philosophy
Editor, Philosophy & Theology


William Elliott
William R. Burleigh and E. W. Scripps Professor
Dean, College of Communication
Marquette University

Return to Previous Page