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."

Obama's memo also sets up a task force of government officials to tackle problems with so-called "controlled unclassified" information – documents that have not been formally classified as "Secret" or "Top Secret" but are kept from public release by officials' use of ad-hoc pseudo-classified terms.

There are over 107 different "CUI" markings, according to Obama's memo.

Patrice McDermott heads, a coalition of a seventy groups to promote openness and accountability in government, including the American Library Association, the League of Women Voters, Human Rights First, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. She's concerned that Obama's review doesn't focus on how useful, or necessary, these "CUI" markings are.

The review, McDermott said, "will not necessarily reduce the use of [CUI markings] throughout the government." That's a real problem, she said, because officials are even more likely to abuse CUI systems than the formal classification system used for national security secrets.

"There's no training on [how to use] them, there's no process for review, no limitation on who can put these markings on the documents, no time limit so there's no automatic release," said McDermott. "We're very concerned."

Until recently, William Leonard ran the office which oversaw the government's classification efforts. Perhaps more than anyone else, Leonard knows firsthand the shortcomings of the current system, and its desperate need for reform. His take on the Obama memo? "The proof will be in the pudding," said Leonard, reached at his home in rural Maryland. "It's really too early to tell one way or the other."

"You look back in history, any time a president has undertaken a review and changed rules in this area, in essence they've just tinkered around the edges," Leonard said. "Either the outcome of this process can represent tinkering around the edges, or the real opportunity to make radical change."

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