December 30, 2009
Obama Curbs Secrecy of Classified Documents
By CHARLIE SAVAGE, NY Times
WASHINGTON — President Obama declared on Tuesday that “no information may remain classified indefinitely” as part of a sweeping overhaul of the executive branch’s system for protecting classified national security information.
In an executive order and an accompanying presidential memorandum to agency heads, Mr. Obama signaled that the government should try harder to make information public if possible, including by requiring agencies to regularly review what kinds of information they classify and to eliminate any obsolete secrecy requirements.
“Agency heads shall complete on a periodic basis a comprehensive review of the agency’s classification guidance, particularly classification guides, to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified,” Mr. Obama wrote in the order, released while he was vacationing in Hawaii.
He also established a new National Declassification Center at the National Archives to speed the process of declassifying historical documents by centralizing their review, rather than sending them in sequence to different agencies. He set a four-year deadline for processing a 400-million-page backlog of such records that includes archives related to military operations during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Moreover, Mr. Obama eliminated a rule put in place by former President George W. Bush in 2003 that allowed the leader of the intelligence community to veto decisions by an interagency panel to declassify information. Instead, spy agencies who object to such a decision will have to appeal to the president.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama campaigned on a theme of making the government less secretive. But in office his record has been more ambiguous, drawing fire from advocates of open government by embracing Bush-era claims that certain lawsuits involving surveillance and torture must be shut down to protect state secrets.
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, expressed cautious optimism about Mr. Obama’s new order, saying it appeared to be “a major step forward” from the vantage point of those who believe the government is too secretive.
“Everything depends on the faithful implementation by the agencies,” Mr. Aftergood said, “but there are some real innovations here.”
Mr. Obama also suggested that his administration might undertake further changes, saying he looked forward to recommendations from a study that Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, is leading “to design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system.”