from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
October 17, 2001


Attorney General John Ashcroft has issued a new statement of policy that encourages federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests whenever they have legal grounds to do so.

The new statement supersedes a 1993 memorandum from Attorney General Janet Reno which promoted disclosure of government information through the FOIA unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful."

The Ashcroft policy rejects this "foreseeable harm" standard.

Instead, the Justice Department instructs agencies to withhold information whenever there is a "sound legal basis" for doing so.

"When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part," the Attorney General advised, "you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis...."

The new FOIA policy statement, issued October 12, is posted here:

For purposes of comparison, Attorney General Reno's 1993 memorandum may be found here:

As with many of the Bush Administration's new restrictions on public information, the new policy is only peripherally related to the fight against terrorism. Rather, it appears to exploit the current circumstances to advance a predisposition toward official secrecy.


The long-delayed publication of the official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on US policy towards Greece, Cyprus and Turkey in 1964-1968 is now scheduled for December of this year, according to the State Department's latest status report on the FRUS series.

Publication of this unclassified volume has been fiercely resisted by senior CIA officials because it alludes to covert US intervention in Greek elections during the 1960s.

The anticipated FRUS publication schedule, updated as of this month, is posted here:

The State Department Historical Advisory Committee on Monday approved release of minutes of its June 2001 meeting. The minutes include discussion of current declassification disputes with the CIA, a forthcoming retrospective volume on the Congo, and National Security Agency declassification activity in support of FRUS. See:


Today marks a deadline that was established by the Clinton Administration for declassification of 25 year old records, but this milestone is not expected to have much of an impact.

One of the "revolutionary" features of the 1995 executive order 12958 on classification and declassification policy was its requirement that historically valuable 25 year old records (that are not otherwise exempt) were to be automatically declassified after 5 years "whether or not the records have been reviewed" (Sec. 3.4).

In 1999, executive order 13142 extended that 5 year deadline for automatic declassification by 18 months for general records and by 36 months for intelligence records or those requiring multi-agency review. See:

Today, October 17, 2001, the 18 month extension period comes to an end.

What is the practical effect of this automatic declassification deadline? "Not much," said an Administration official.

The volume of records that might have affected by today's date has been diminished by a number of factors: many records have been specifically exempted under one of the executive order's nine exemptions; other records have already been declassified; and many of the remainder have been excluded from automatic declassification by congressional intervention.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is quietly developing a new executive order on classification and declassification policy to amend or replace the 1995 Clinton order. No details concerning a new order have been disclosed.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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