Anyone who remembers when Americans instinctively trusted their government is by definition an antique. Today the general assumption is that our officials deceive us. President Clinton says that one of his striking impressions since coming to Washington has been the pervasive public cynicism about government.

The change in American attitudes has had one major cause, I believe: secrecy. During the years of the Cold War, opposing a conspiratorial adversary, the United States for the first time developed an enormous permanent national security apparatus - and a culture of secrecy to match. In the darkness Washington did things that destroyed the public's faith.This last month of 1993 has produced dramatic examples of the corruption that secrecy engenders. We have learned that, years ago, plutonium was injected into five hospital patients in one of several experiments with unknowing human subjects. In another, researchers gave radioactive pills to 751 pregnant women; three of the children they bore died of cancer by age 11.

In an effort to develop a radiation weapon - one that would kill enemy soldiers by fallout - the Army in what was then the Atomic Energy Commission deliberately released radiation over unsuspecting Americans. In 1950, for example, a conventional bomb containing dangerously radioactive material was exploded in the air over northern New Mexico and radiation detected 70 miles away. There were hundreds of such tests.

Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, disclosed that radiation testing. An Energy Department official, Robert Alvarez, then said: "The public record is very clear that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate acts of deception against the American public in the 1940s and 1950s in order to prosecute the nuclear arms race."

Alvarez is an aide to the secretary of energy, Hazel R. O'Leary, who has made a great difference on the issue of secrecy. During the Reagan and Bush years, the department resisted public and congressional demands for disclosure of such abuses as human experimentation. Mrs. O'Leary has acted decisively to open up the records.

No such spirit of openness has appeared during the first year of the Clinton administration at the chief national security ministries: the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. Only reluctantly and in driblets, for example, have they admitted what they knew at the time about the activities of right-wing death squads and military forces in El Salvador.

When U.S. journalists reported in 1982 that Salvadoran government forces had massacred hundreds of civilians in El Mozote, U.S. officials denied the story and covered up what they knew - then and for years after. The Truth Commission set up when the civil war ended quickly found that the massacre had indeed occurred.

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In 1984, the CIA found that Salvadoran government efforts to end right-wing killing were ineffective and "aimed almost exclusively at placating Washington." Though that truth was obvious, the CIA would release only a truncated version of its report that implied the opposite - until, last month, the full report was declassified, obtained by investigators at the National Security Archive and published on The New York Times Op-Ed page.

In past wars, right up through Vietnam, details of battles were disclosed soon after they were over. Today, the Pentagon refuses to release its films of the Persian Gulf War.

President Clinton last April ordered a complete review of the secrecy system built up during the Cold War. But the review is being carried out by bureaucrats whose job has been stamping documents secret. Their proposals are now before the staff of the National Security Council, and the chances for real reform seem doubtful. The habit of secrecy, once acquired, is extremely hard to get rid of.

The premise of the American Constitution was that the governors must be accountable to the governed. The Framers believed that that system, for all its inconveniences, would best prevent abuses and maintain public faith in government. In departing from their wisdom, we have learned how right they were.

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