Until recently, the principal difference between the Bush and Clinton Administrations on classification policy was that the Clinton Administration talked more about openness. Otherwise, under President Clinton, the scope and pace of classification activity remained about the same, while the volume of classified files actually increased to unprecedented dimensions.
But on November 10, in an action that speaks louder than a thousand press releases, President Clinton signed executive order 12937 which declassifies in bulk some 43.9 million pages of classified files. These include 21 million pages from World War II and before, and 22.9 post-1945 military and civilian records. The declassification order affects about 14% of the classified holdings at the National Archives, and represents perhaps 1% of the totality of classified Cold War files.
It is the largest single declassification action ever. And in particular, it is the largest instance of bulk declassification, in which files are released without detailed declassification review. The National Archives does occasionally perform bulk declassification in very limited cases, said Michael Kurtz, the acting assistant archivist at the Archives, but "This is the first on such a wide scale."
Is it a precedent for further bulk declassifications? "It was approached as a one-time action," said Mr. Kurtz on November 22. "But it does indicate that such a thing can be done. There's no reason we couldn~t do it again."
However, Mr. Kurtz noted, "The real attention needs to go to systemic reform." The 25 year maximum classification lifetime that will be established in a forthcoming executive order "would overtake efforts like this" and make them unnecessary, he said.
Why did this executive order, which was originally intended to coincide with the D-Day commemoration last June, take so long to complete? "A lot of coordination was necessary," Kurtz explained. "The agencies needed to be assured that we weren't just willy-nilly throwing things open."
An additional 4.9 million pages were originally supposed to be included in the bulk declassification action. But they were withheld when defense and intelligence agencies objected to bulk release of several million pages of Army Vietnam records as well as 600,000 pages of WWII records that had previously been reviewed and withheld.
Some of the newly declassified documents are the relatively insignificant residue of decades of neglect. For example, there are 400,000 pages of Office of Strategic Services "records" that turn out to be index cards to other records that had previously been declassified.
"There are a lot of routine records and there are some of tremendous historical value," said Kurtz. But what is more important than any particular document is that "we have finally completed the World War II historical record, and we have begun to fill in the blanks in post-war history."
Critics of unnecessary government spending may also note that the President's bulk declassification action probably saved at least tens of millions of dollars, considering that it typically costs around a dollar per page to perform declassification review. (The FBI says it spent $3.59 per page reviewed for declassification in FY 1993, according to a March 21 report to OMB on classification costs.)
Executive Order 12937 appears in the Federal Register, November 15, 1994, p. 59097.
Among the secrecy policy decisions that are piling up at the White House is an executive order that would declassify large quantities of classified imagery obtained through U.S. intelligence satellite and aerial reconnaissance programs over the last few decades.
Although there are dissenters, it is widely believed that classified intelligence imagery may have unparalleled value for environmental and other scientific research purposes. In some cases, it may provide the only long-term data set available anywhere.
With this premise in mind, then-Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates established a DCI Environmental Task Force in 1992 which included some 70 prominent environmental scientists. The scientists were specially cleared and tasked to evaluate the voluminous archives of intelligence imagery and to determine their applicability to environmental concerns.
It turns out that the DCI Environmental Task Force completed its work about a year ago, according to Prof. Gordon MacDonald, an eminent geophysicist and the chairman of the group.
The final report of the Task Force is "very highly classified," MacDonald said, and he skillfully deflected questions about its contents and recommendations. The May 1993 interim report of the task force, however, indicated that "a large number of [reconnaissance] assets have the potential to contribute significantly to our understanding of the environment," according to the National Performance Review report on Intelligence.
Prof. MacDonald confirmed that "executive orders have been drafted." They have long been out of the hands of the intelligence community and have been at the National Security Council for months awaiting action. MacDonald said his impression was that the executive order on declassifying WWII documents was first in the queue, and that the imagery order would follow, perhaps early in 1995. Even though the process is currently stalled, he predicted that it would turn out to be "highly productive."
And while the DCI Environmental Task Force was terminated nearly a year ago, similar work continues in an effort called MEDEA, which is examining archival data as well as present and even future reconnaissance systems for their possible utility for scientific or environmental applications, MacDonald said.
Yet another related effort called the Classification Review Task Force, conducted by the Central Imagery Office, also concluded about a year ago (see S&GB 29). It recommended decompartmentation (i.e., downgrading to Secret) of almost all current imagery, as well as declassification of imagery from film-return systems that are more than 20 years old.
One roadblock in the implementation of imagery declassification is the concern among some in industry that by releasing significant quantities of archival material, the CIA will skew the market for sales of commercially generated, medium-to-high resolution imagery.
Another obstacle is the perception of a "FOIA threat." (Last year, one Freedom of Information Act requester asked the CIA for a "satellite photo of his car accident," according to the 1993 CIA FOIA log.)
Intelligence officials want to make sure that the declassification of some old imagery isn't used to compel the release under the Freedom of Information Act of more current or more sensitive photos. Draft legislation has been prepared to guard against this contingency.
Bad press and stubborn critics are one reason why it has taken so long to complete the long awaited new executive order on classification, said Steven Garfinkel of the Information Security Oversight Office in an interview with the newsletter Inside the Pentagon (12/1/94, p. 13).
Garfinkel singled out for criticism a New York Times op- ed piece by Steven Aftergood of FAS and Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive that appeared more than a year ago (9/30/93, p. A25). That article, which criticized the initial draft of a new executive order on classification, "had the effect of convincing some folks within the administration that we had submitted a faulty draft," he told Inside the Pentagon.
If not for that article, and related coverage in the Times and the Washington Post, "we would have a new executive order today. Had those articles not done what they did, which was essentially send this thing back to the drawing board, we'd be operating under a new system today," Mr. Garfinkel said.
The Times op-ed last year criticized the initial draft order, among other things, for setting a maximum classification lifetime of 40 years, arguing that 40 years was far too long a period. The op-ed compared that draft unfavorably to President Nixon's classification system, which called for a maximum classification lifetime of 30 years, and President Carter's system, which set a maximum lifetime of 20 years.
Garfinkel pointed out correctly that the comparison was partially unfair, since Nixon's and Carter's systems entailed declassification review prior to release, whereas the 1993 draft would have declassified 40 year old documents with little or no review. The 1993 draft would have still required detailed review for declassification of documents that were more than 25 years old and less than 40 years old.
Outside the government, it is widely held that most 40 year old documents should not be classified even under today's cold war classification system, and that far more ambitious post-cold war reforms are necessary. But Garfinkel said that reducing the maximum classification lifetime would come with a cost. "The final draft will have a lot more exceptions than I would have wanted," he said.
Subsequent drafts of the executive order in 1994 have reduced the maximum duration of classification to 25 years, with a transition period until declassification review is reduced or eliminated. (All drafts allow for exceptions to the "maximum.") The final draft is "imminent," i.e. some months away.
"Aftergood and Blanton hoisted themselves on their own petard," Garfinkel told Inside the Pentagon. "Had they come out and said, `This is a radical change for the betterment of government openness,' we would have a new order today."
The new Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community promises to become a battleground for competing visions of the future of intelligence, at the same time that it serves to forestall any fundamental near-term reforms.
One measure of the intensity of interest in the Commission is the fact that Senator Bob Dole's office received more than 500 resumes from individuals volunteering themselves for the one non-governmental slot on the Commission Senator Dole is supposed to fill.
Meanwhile, the immediate impact of the Commission will be to fortify the status quo. Until the Commission issues its final report in March 1996, "there will be no bold new initiatives" by the Congressional intelligence committees, according to a Senate staffer. "It'll be a quiet year." But the feasibility of acting on the Commission's recommendations after they are presented in 1996, in what is bound to be a contentious election year, is questionable.
Intelligence reform has become a subject of seemingly endless fascination and futility. More than 60 intelligence community task forces and other study groups were convened between 1991 and 1993 alone to address various aspects of intelligence reform, notes the National Performance Review report on intelligence.
But "If you're interested in profound change in the intelligence community, this is the only way it will happen," said a senior military intelligence official on Nov. 16. "I'm convinced we won't do it on our own."
The eruption of electronic publications and services has produced some genuinely novel ways to waste time. Anyone who has the time to explore the vast resources available on the Internet... should probably read a book instead.
"The on-line community today... [has] little real interest in the revitalization of democracy or any other high-minded ideals frequently cited as benefits of electronic interconnectivity, unless you consider the mindless accumulation of binary data a socially invigorating development," writes George C. Smith in his cynical, diverting new book about computer virus writers and fighters called The Virus Creation Labs: A Journey into the Underground (American Eagle Publications, Tucson, AZ, 1994).
"More often you'll find relentless hucksterism, witless gossip masquerading as reason, corrosive vulgarity, petty vendettas, dirty tricks and routine invasions of personal privacy," says Smith. "Data, data everywhere but not a thought to think."
With that introduction and warning, we note that recent back issues of S&GB are now available through the Internet thanks to FAS Trustee Prof. William Revelle.