from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 96
October 11, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


Last Friday, White House officials made at least two public references to Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs). PPD 1 was cited in a new executive order on computer security and PPD 8 was cited in a White House blog posting on disaster preparedness. Each Directive is a significant expression of national policy. Neither one is classified. And yet neither of them -- nor any other Obama Presidential Policy Directive -- can be found on the White House website.

The White House decision not to make these documents available is a stark reminder of the incoherence of the Obama Administration's transparency policy, and its inconsistent implementation.

"Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset," President Obama wrote in his January 21, 2009 memo on transparency and open government. "My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public."

But as the withholding of the presidential directives illustrates, not even the Obama White House itself complies with this policy, and so its impact in the farther reaches of the executive branch has been muted. Those who seek access to Presidential Policy Directives must look elsewhere.

"I think it's general policy that we can release a detailed summary of [PPDs]," said deputy national security adviser Michael Froman at a September 22, 2010 White House press briefing, "but as I understand the policy, [it is] not to release the PPDs themselves."

In accordance with this PPD non-disclosure policy, the Department of State last month denied a FOIA request from Gavin Baker of OMB Watch for a copy of PPD 6 on global development policy. The document was exempt from release, the State Department said, based on "the Presidential communication privilege."

On the other hand, the full text of PPD 8 on national preparedness has been made available online by the Department of Homeland Security, despite the White House refusal to release it directly and notwithstanding any "Presidential communication privilege."

Where secrecy has prevailed, unauthorized disclosures have also helped to fill the void in public access. PPD 1 on the Organization of the National Security Council System was obtained from a confidential source shortly after its issuance in February 2009. (The National Security Staff did release a copy of the directive after it was made available online.) PPD 2 on Implementation of the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats was obtained by the website Public Intelligence through an inadvertent disclosure on a server for U.S. military personnel.

Although no Presidential Policy Directives have been published on the White House website, one Obama Presidential Study Directive -- PSD 10 on preventing mass atrocities -- was in fact published by the White House last August. This otherwise unremarkable step tends to confirm that there is no serious question of principle or privilege at stake in the decision to publish such directives. Instead, the Obama Administration's broader anti-transparency policy on presidential directives appears to be driven by an old-fashioned imperative of secrecy for its own sake.


Inevitably and predictably, the U.S. Government has moved to systematically increase the monitoring of classified computer networks and to tighten the safeguarding of classified information in response to the indiscriminate publication of classified records by WikiLeaks.

An executive order issued on October 7 does not define the new security policies. Instead, it establishes new mechanisms for monitoring, developing and implementing information system security policies, including a newly established Insider Threat Task Force.

In a gesture directed at whistleblowers, the new executive order states (sect. 7e) that "the entities created and the activities directed by this order shall not seek to deter, detect, or mitigate disclosures of information by Government employees or contractors that are lawful under and protected by" whistleblower protection statutes.

But while the systematic tracking of online behavior may not deliberately "seek" to deter or detect whistleblowers, it's hard to see how it could fail to produce such effects.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported in July that it is "retiring" classification guides on three topical areas as a result of the ongoing Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.

The cancelled classification guides pertain to "national security information concerning nuclear materials and facilities"; "assessing nuclear threat messages"; and "information dealing with the release and dispersion of radioactive material." To the extent that information on these topics may still require classification, the NRC report said there are other authorities that the Commission can rely on, including joint classification guides with the Department of Energy that remain in effect.

But the retired guides will no longer be available for use in classifying NRC information.

A similar report from the Department of Defense noted that 82 DoD classification guides had been eliminated under the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review as of last July.

The potential efficacy of a broad-based review of agency classification guidance in reducing excessive secrecy was demonstrated in practice by the Department of Energy in the mid-1990s. (The Department would "classify less, and enjoy it more," a spokesman told Science Magazine in 1993.) Building on that example, I presented an argument for a government-wide review of classification guidance in "Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works," Yale Law & Policy Review, vol. 27, no. 2, spring 2009.


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

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