WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to deal with a Dec. 31 deadline that automatically would declassify secrets in more than 400 million pages of Cold War-era documents by ordering government-wide changes that could sharply curb the number of new and old government records hidden from the public.
In an executive order the president is likely to sign before year's end, Obama will create a National Declassification Center to clear up the backlog of Cold War documents. But the order also will give everyone more time to process the 400 million pages rather than flinging them open at year's end without a second glance.
The order aimed at eliminating unnecessary secrecy also is expected to direct all agencies to revise their classification guides — the more than 2,000 separate and unique manuals used by federal agencies to determine what information should be classified and what no longer needs that protection. The manuals form the foundation of the government's classification system.
Two of every three such guides haven't been updated in the past five years, according to the 2008 annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the government's security classification.
The anticipated timing of Obama's order was disclosed by a government official familiar with the planning who requested anonymity in order to discuss the order before its release. A draft of the order leaked last summer.
The still-classified Cold War records would provide a wealth of data on U.S.-Soviet relations, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, diplomacy and espionage. A Soviet spy ring in the Navy led by John Walker headlined 1985, which became known as "The Year of the Spy."
It took 19 years and a lawsuit for the National Security Archive, a private group that obtains and analyzes once-secret government records, to get documents on the 1959 crisis when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over control of West Berlin. For nearly two decades, the contested documents were shuttled back and forth among various offices in the Defense Department, then on to the State Department and an unnamed intelligence agency, each conducting a separate declassification review, before the government finally gave some of them up.
An open government
Obama's executive order will follow on the president's inauguration day initiatives on open government. On his first day in office, Obama instructed federal agencies to be more responsive to requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act and he overturned an order by President George W. Bush that would have enabled former presidents and vice presidents to block release of sensitive records of their time in the White House.
William J. Bosanko, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, says the classification policies in place under executive orders signed by Bush and President Bill Clinton have protected national security and enabled increased declassification.
But Obama's review is necessary to enhance security and increase declassification "to a level that our open society expects and deserves," Bosanko said.
Obama's executive order "is an experiment, but it just might work," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "By changing the rules about what gets classified, this could lead to a dramatic reduction in secrecy throughout the government." Aftergood obtained a leaked copy of an early draft of the executive order last summer.
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The government spent more than $8.21 billion last year to create and safeguard classified information, and $43 million to declassify it, according to the oversight office, part of the National Archives and Records Administration. The figures don't include data from the principal intelligence agencies, which is classified.
"What we're seeking to do is come up with a system that refocuses the finite resources available," says Bosanko.
"Serial reviews" are among the requirements causing declassification delays that can take years to resolve. When a classified document contains secrets from multiple agencies, each agency must review its part, a process that can add years to the declassification process.
In 2000, Clinton gave agencies a three-year extension to complete a review of multiple-agency classified records. When it became clear that the deadline wouldn't be met, Bush in 2003 gave federal agencies a six-year extension.
Declassification spending was cut from an average of $224 million annually in the last four years of the Clinton administration to only $47 million a year during the last four years of the Bush administration.
Today, the problem is not much closer to being solved than it was in the 1990s. Under the terms of Bush's extension, sensitive information in hundreds of millions of pages of historical documents will be declassified automatically on Dec. 31 unless Obama acts.
"If the agencies haven't found the sensitive old documents after nine years, that's some indication those records don't deserve being secret anymore," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
Obama's order probably will centralize the review process for old records, having all agencies look at the same classified documents at the same time through the new National Declassification Center. Michael Kurtz, who has been with the National Archives for the past 35 years, has been chosen as the center's acting director.
Much of the work of a National Declassification Center probably would be conducted at the National Archives facility in College Park, Md., where many of the documents are housed and many of the agency declassifiers already spend a great deal of time.
Critics say Obama should do more than the upcoming executive order is likely to. They note that Clinton ordered a "bulk declassification" of millions of records from World War II and before; they want Obama to do the same with Cold War-era records.
The premise of bulk declassification is that "we're not going to spend taxpayer dollars to go through these records one by one," said William Leonard, Bosanko's predecessor as Information Security Oversight Office director.
And the planned National Declassification Center, said Leonard, should have authority to decide the status of millions of classified records on its own.
"We shouldn't need multiple opinions from multiple agencies," said Leonard.
But intelligence agencies have resisted surrendering their authority over secrets to an interagency group.
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