SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 25
March 26, 2003

A NEW EXECUTIVE ORDER

President Bush signed a new executive order on national security classification policy that will defer the April 17, 2003 deadline for automatic declassification of millions of 25 year old documents until December 31, 2006, while making a number of other adjustments to the current classification regime.

Most remarkable, from Secrecy News' point of view, is what the new order did not do: It did not alter the basic structures of declassification that were introduced by the Clinton Administration and that have yielded around a billion pages of declassified historical documents in the past seven years.

As previously noted, the order does include several changes tending in the direction of greater secrecy. These include a presumption of classification for foreign government information; expanded authority to reclassify declassified information; new authority for the CIA to reject declassification rulings from an interagency panel; and elimination of the instruction to classifiers not to classify if there is significant doubt about the need to do so.

As deplorable as these steps are, however, they seem unlikely to have a major impact on disclosure policy. Foreign government information was already rendered statutorily exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in the 2001 Defense Authorization Act, so classifying it is gilding the lily. Reclassification of declassified information still requires a written finding from an agency head, and so is unlikely to be carelessly or frequently invoked. As for the interagency panel, in almost every one of the cases where it has voted to declassify CIA documents, the CIA representative to the panel concurred in declassification. And the former injunction not to classify in event of significant doubt was a rhetorical flourish that never had operational meaning.

A deeper problem with the order is that it is predicated on a hierarchical information model that no longer corresponds to the way information is used inside and outside of government. In practice, most useful information does not flow top-down in a pyramid shape, but every which way in a network. Imposing the traditional classification structure on a webbed information environment is a recipe for dysfunction.

A copy of the new order, signed on March 25, may be found here:

The transcript of a White House background briefing on the new order is posted here:

See also "Release of Documents is Delayed" by Dana Milbank and Mike Allen, Washington Post, March 26:

and "Bush Orders a 3-Year Delay in Opening Secret Documents" by Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, March 26:


ISCAP REPORTS ON DECLASSIFICATION

The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), which is one of the Clinton-era innovations that has now been endorsed by the Bush Administration, reports that it has chalked up another year of eliminating unnecessary classifications that would otherwise have gone unchecked.

The ISCAP is an executive branch body composed of representatives of Justice, State, CIA, DoD and the National Archives and supported by the Information Security Oversight Office. One of its principal functions is to consider appeals from the public of declassification requests that have been denied by one of the ISCAP member agencies.

Remarkably, the Panel has overturned original agency classification decisions, and declassified the requested documents partially or completely, in 76% of the cases it has considered. (This compares with a declassification figure close to zero in similar challenges that are litigated in federal court under the Freedom of Information Act.)

The ISCAP has a limited capacity -- it considered just over 100 contested documents in 2002 -- and it is not entirely exempt from the mindless impulse to classify that leads to bad decisions, but it is nevertheless an impressive bureaucratic solution to an enduring bureaucratic problem.

The ISCAP's report on its activities in 2002 may be found here, courtesy of the Information Security Oversight Office:


CHASING THE IRAQI NUCLEAR HOAX

One of many troubling features of the war in Iraq is the fact that some of the evidence proferred by the United States government to justify the war has proved to be fabricated and false.

Documents purporting to show that Iraq sought to purchase uranium from Niger are now known to be forgeries, raising questions about the good faith of the Bush Administration, which cited the claim in the State of the Union address, the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies and, not least, the identity and motives of the forgers.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) recently sent an eight page letter to White House in an attempt to probe the meaning of this episode.

"It has become incontrovertibly clear that a key piece of evidence you and other Administration officials have cited regarding Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons is a hoax," wrote Rep. Waxman. "This is a breach of the highest order, and the American people are entitled to know how it happened."

See Rep. Waxman's March 17 letter here:

Jack Shafer wrote a series of items on media coverage and non-coverage of the matter in Slate. See his "Follow That Story: The Nuclear Whodunit":

Seymour Hersh did his thing in the New Yorker this week. See "Who Lied to Whom?" here:


NORTH KOREA AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS

"If the United States discards its hostile policy against the DPRK [North Korea] and discontinues making nuclear threats, we will be ready to prove, through a separate verification between the DPRK and the United States, that we will not make nuclear weapons."

That's what North Korea said in a lengthy statement explaining its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The statement, which is coherent and rational and generally free of cartoonish vitriol, suggests that it might be possible to find a diplomatic solution to the problems posed by the North Korean nuclear program.

See the January 21 statement, newly translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, here:

For related background, see "North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program" by Larry A. Niksch, Congressional Research Service, updated March 17:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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