Obama orders review of government secrecy

Associated Press
28 May 2009

Expanding his drive to open government, President Obama is ordering two studies of whether the government is classifying too much information and using too many different ways to keep it from public view.

He wants the answers in just 90 days, and it’s no secret which way he’s leaning.

In a memo Wednesday, Mr. Obama ordered national security adviser James L. Jones to consult relevant agencies and recommend revisions in the existing presidential order on national security classification that lays out the rules under which agencies can stamp documents “confidential,” “secret” or “top secret.”

That same memo also ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to set up a governmentwide task force on standardizing so-called controlled but unclassified information. This is data with stamps like “for official use only” or “limited official distribution” that are not authorized by the executive order but have grown up over the years to keep sensitive data from the public even if it doesn’t meet standards for national security classification.

Mr. Obama noted that there are now 107 different stamps for such data, also known as “sensitive but unclassified” information, and 130 different procedures for applying those stamps. He said a 2008 order by former President George W. Bush had “a salutary effect” in establishing a framework to begin standardizing these designations for sensitive terrorism-related data, but he asked the task force to recommend whether that work should be expanded to cover all sensitive but unclassified information governmentwide.

The tone of the memo suggested Obama thought a governmentwide effort would be a good idea. Mr. Obama also directed this group to study the procedures for handling sensitive but unclassified data to be sure that “information is not restricted unless there is a compelling need.”

While Mr. Obama didn’t order any changes in government secrecy Wednesday, his memo contained language and set agendas for the two studies that hinted strongly at moves he might take. It was greeted with cheers from open government advocates who have long argued that government classifies too much information.

Echoing language he used earlier to open more government information to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Obama said “a democratic government must be as transparent as possible and must not withhold information for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment.”

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