Critics Blast Obama Classification Review

When President Obama announced his administration would attempt to reform government secrecy, he called it part of an effort to conduct the nation's business with "unprecedented" openness.

But government secrecy experts and openness advocates have another word for the effort, which Obama outlined in a memo released late last week: "superficial."

While embracing Obama's focus on making government more open and accountable, the president's directive from last week "doesn't get to the root" of U.S. government officials' addiction to stamping information "classified," said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

"[B]oth the memo's diagnosis and its own suggested remedies are quite superficial," Aftergood wrote in his newsletter and blog this week.

Meredith Fuchs, of the nonpartisan National Security Archives at George Washington University, agreed. "[Obama's memo] doesn't suggest there's going to be anything significant done that would fix a system that's been broken for so long."

"They're talking about retaining a system that could create a whole new realm of state secrets, without challenging the status quo," said Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent now a policy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. "This memo has very little detail. . . that could raise concerns."

Obama's memo directs his national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, to consult with "relevant executive departments and agencies" and make recommendations on specific issues relating to classification.

"The Obama Administration is committed to operating with an unprecedented level of transparency," White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said when asked about experts' concerns. He noted that Obama asked Jones "to take a number of steps to address the problem of overclassification including 'any other measures appropriate to provide for greater openness and transparency in the Government's security classification and declassification program."

Cost of Secrecy Estimated at More Than $10B

By nearly all accounts, the U.S. government keeps too many documents as official secrets. One senior Pentagon official told Congress a few years ago she believed roughly half of all documents stamped "Secret" or "Top Secret" probably didn't deserve to be.

Part of the cost of overclassification can be measured in the U.S. public's ignorance of the actions its government hides from it. But part of its cost can be seen in dollars and cents: the National Archives estimated last year that the government's efforts to keep the nation's secrets to itself cost taxpayers more than $10 billion.

Aftergood, Fuchs and other experts are delighted that Obama has focused on the issue this early in his tenure. Unfortunately, Fuchs and others noted, the process Obama outlines in his memo does not direct officials in charge of the classification review to consider public input, or provide a public accounting of their efforts.

"There's nothing at all in this memo that suggests this is going to be an open, public, transparent process," Fuchs said. "I would have thought, given Obama's commitment to open government, there would be more of an effort to build in public participation."

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