Archives officials urge caution on declassification policy

A forthcoming executive order from President Obama of government information could include plans to create a National Declassification Center.

A forthcoming executive order from President Obama on declassification of government information will probably revert to the Clinton administration's policies rather than overhaul the practices under former President George W. Bush, a National Archives and Records Administration official said on Monday.

Speaking at a conference kicking off Sunshine Week, NARA Information Security Oversight Office Director William Bosanko said if Obama truly wants to reverse his predecessor's "policy of secrecy," he could follow through on his campaign pledge to create a National Declassification Center as a starting point. Bosanko added that an executive announcment may be "imminent."

Steven Garfinkel, who ran NARA's information security office for more than 20 years, said the Obama administration might be following former President Jimmy Carter's approach in its wish to "change things radically." Former President Richard Nixon instituted a 30-year automatic declassification order, which Carter changed to six years. Garfinkel warned that every classification executive order issued since Nixon has proven problematic for a variety of reasons, and he urged Obama officials to move carefully.

"Our system of classifying and declassifying information, while rightly criticized, is still a model throughout the world," Garfinkel said. Bosanko took a similar line, arguing that overclassification is never going to go away. Legislation to address that concern -- by altering the "controlled unclassified information" designation created by Bush in 2008 -- passed the House last month and awaits Senate action. The category was created to cover most information previously referred to as sensitive but unclassified.

Speakers also addressed how to overhaul the Freedom of Information Act. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he, along with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, will reintroduce a bill this week requiring Congress to explicitly state its intention when writing statutory FOIA exemptions into new legislation. FOIA "is the power cord that connects the American people to their government," said Leahy. "The growing use of legislation to carve out new exemptions to FOIA poses a danger to the ideals of open government."

Leahy added that Attorney General Eric Holder will release new FOIA guidance for federal agencies "in the very near future." Justice Department officials declined to comment, but speakers at the conference said they expect the announcement later this week. The senator also lauded the inclusion of $1 million to fund a first-ever NARA ombudsman to mediate FOIA disputes in the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill. Legislation that he and Cornyn introduced last Congress authorized the creation of the new office.