from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 21
March 11, 2003


A new draft executive order on national security classification and declassification policy began circulating for official comment this week. An early assessment offered by one agency official who favors public access to government information is that "It could be a lot worse."

When finalized, the new executive order will replace President Clinton's 1995 executive order 12958, which dramatically accelerated the declassification process and which has now yielded close to a billion pages of historically valuable declassified documents.

In recent decades, whenever the Presidency shifted from one party to another, the new President would issue an executive order on secrecy policy to serve as the foundation of the classification system. Typically, and at least rhetorically, the orders issued by Democratic presidents (e.g., Clinton's EO 12958) have emphasized disclosure, while those of Republican presidents (e.g., Reagan's EO 12356) have stressed secrecy.

The Bush Administration initiative to craft a new executive order, which began in August 2001, has therefore been a source of anxiety for those who feared that the Administration's predilection for official secrecy would lead to dramatic changes in classification policy. But that may not turn out to be the case.

The new draft order "amounts to amendments to the Clinton order, rather than an entirely new Bush order," according to the official.

A number of changes have been made, but they are "quite modest, quite supportable" the official said. "If you parsed it out, you would find things you didn't like. But I question whether those things make a lot of real world difference anyway."

Executive orders on classification define top level information policies, but they cannot prevent officials from making unwarranted or irrational classification decisions.

There is a loose deadline of April 17, 2003 for issuance of the new order, because that is the date on which 25 year old classified files that are replete with intelligence information or multi-agency "equities" are due to be automatically declassified, pursuant to Executive Order 13142. The new Bush order is expected to defer that April 17 deadline.

The text of the new draft executive order was not immediately available.


"Protecting secrets when appropriate, disclosing secrets when proper, and managing secrecy are all normal parts of the democratic process," writes Bruce Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution. "The same principles that are used to strike a balance among competing interests in a democracy can be used to oversee intelligence secrets as well."

See "Democracies and Their Spies," by Bruce Berkowitz, Hoover Digest, Winter 2003:

In the USA Patriot Act's provisions for electronic surveillance, "too much has been left to executive branch discretion," according to an analysis in the Duke Law Journal. "Americans should be concerned that privacy may be unnecessarily threatened as a result."

See "The Patriot Act's Impact on the Government's Ability to Conduct Electronic Surveillance of Ongoing Domestic Communications" by Nathan C. Henderson, Duke Law Journal, October 2002:

A 1966 study performed for the Defense Department evaluated, and rejected, the hypothetical use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. A declassified copy of that study, and related analyses that draw lessons for today, may be found here:

The personal files of British agents of the World War II Special Operations Executive are among the releases announced by the UK Public Record Office this month. See:


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

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