From The Coalition Column of the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
Obama Executive Order Issued to Expedite Declassification
On December 29, President Obama issued a new executive order (EO 13526) that would dramatically change the way the executive branch handles classified material, reduce over-classification and expedite the release of formerly classified materials to the public. Federal agencies would be required to eliminate a 400 million page backlog of materials awaiting declassification by December 31, 2013.
In addition, the President issued a memorandum to heads of departments and agencies that directs additional steps agencies should take to implement the order. The White House also released a Presidential order entitled “Original Classification Authority. This order designates those agency heads and officials as having the authority to classify information as “Top Secret” or “Secret” under the executive order.
Among other major changes, EO 13526 (along with its implementation memorandum) establishes a National Declassification Center at the National Archives to centralize and streamline agency reviews of classified materials. The Archivist of the United States is charged with developing declassification priorities with input from the general public and after taking into account researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification. On December 30, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero announced the immediate establishment of the NDC within NARA.
Under the direction of the NDC, agencies will be required to take steps to eliminate the backlog of more than 400 million pages of accessioned Federal records previously subject to automatic declassification in order to permit public access to these records no later than December 31, 2013. These include archival records related to military operations during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
For the first time, the executive order establishes the principle that no records may remain classified indefinitely and provides enforceable deadlines for declassifying information exempted from automatic declassification at 25 years. The new EO also strengthens the standards agencies must meet to exempt any record from automatic declassification at 25 years. It also prohibits classification beyond 75 years except in extraordinary cases.
For the first time, it requires agencies to conduct fundamental classification guidance reviews to ensure that classification guides are up-to-date and that they do not require unnecessary classification.
It eliminates an Intelligence Community veto of declassification decisions made by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel that was established by the Bush administration.
It directs that information not be classified (or be classified at a lower level) when “significant doubt” exists about the need to classify it.
The Order significantly tightens restrictions on reclassification of information after its declassification.
An in-depth summary of the Executive Order and Implementation Memorandum is available at the White House’s Website www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2009/12/28/promoting-openness-and-accountability-making-classification-a-two-way-street.
This new Order replaces Executive Order 12958 that was issued by President Clinton in 1995 and later amended by President Bush in 2003.
Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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