from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 28
March 24, 2009

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In a new letter to President Obama, the Public Interest Declassification Board warned that reliable public access to government information, the very foundation of representative democracy, may be in jeopardy.

Although "our Board was heartened by your early statements and actions on openness in Government," wrote Board acting chairman Martin Faga to the President on March 6, "we have to sound a note of alarm about how well the Government is doing in this area."

"In fact, we have concluded that this fundamental principle of self-government" -- that is, citizen access to information about Government -- "is at risk and, without decisive action, the situation is likely to worsen."

The Public Interest Declassification Board was established by Congress in 2000 to advise the president on declassification policy and practice. Board members are appointed by the White House and Congress.

Mr. Faga, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, identified several structural and procedural factors that he said impede declassification, including inadequate resources, coordination and leadership, as well as poor management of digital records. "Future historians may find that the paper records of early American history provide a more reliable historical account than the inchoate mass of digital communications of the current era."

Although the Board's mission focuses on declassification of historical records, the Board has also taken an interest in classification policy and has called for a revision to the executive order on classification.

"Serious attention to the classification process itself is needed to ensure that it supports declassification and to address the particularly challenging and long-standing issue of over-classification," the Board's letter said.

A presidential directive initiating a revision of the executive order on classification policy is believed to be imminent.


The National Archives and Records Administration is soliciting public input on new ways to reduce the costs of Presidential libraries while improving public access to the records they hold.

"NARA seeks the comments and suggestions of interested organizations and individuals for cost effective ways of modifying the present system for archiving and providing public access to Presidential records," Acting Archivist Adrienne C. Thomas wrote in a March 24 notice.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee is seeking an update on the status of White House email, including the installation of improved information technology systems to ensure the preservation and retention of Presidential email.

"What policies and procedures are in place to ensure that official e-mails subject to the Presidential Records Act are captured and preserved by government information technology systems?" asked Rep. Edolphus Towns in a February 27, 2009 letter to White House Counsel Gregory Craig.


The British foreign intelligence service MI-6 and the British domestic security service MI-5 will both mark their 100-year anniversary this year. Their exploits are the subject of the new book "Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6" by Gordon Thomas, published this month by St. Martin's Press.


In a test of the new, more forthcoming Freedom of Information Act guidelines that were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 19, the Federation of American Scientists has asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to reconsider its refusal to disclose the budget total for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) for fiscal year 2006.

The new FOIA policy is intended to reverse entrenched secrecy practices and to encourage appropriate release of information.

"By restoring the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, we are making a critical change that will restore the publicís ability to access information in a timely manner," said Attorney General Holder last week. The new guidelines "strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information" and indicate that the Justice Department will not defend FOIA denials in court unless disclosure would damage a protected government interest.

That all sounds promising, but it remains to be demonstrated in practice.

Adding to several other pending FOIA cases that will test the practical meaning of the newly declared policy, we have asked the ODNI to reverse its recent denial of the 2006 budget total. Although the 2007 and 2008 budget figures have been formally declassified, the 2006 figure remains classified.

This ODNI practice of classifying obsolete budget information while releasing current budget information is "stupid," said Steven Garfinkel, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, at a March 16 conference sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law.

It also appears to be at odds with the views of the DNI himself. In response to a pre-hearing question at his confirmation to be DNI, Adm. Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee: "I believe the annual disclosure of the aggregate intelligence appropriation, as required by law, should continue. It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public."

Given these developments, we wrote in a FOIA request to ODNI today, "it seems questionable either that the Justice Department would defend the continued denial under FOIA of the 2006 NIP budget total, or that the DNI would supply a sworn declaration to a federal court to try to justify the withholding of this information."


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

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