For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 25, 2003
WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE CALL BACKGROUND BRIEFING
SUBJECT: EXECUTIVE ORDER 12958
ATTRIBUTION: SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
6:51 P.M. EST, TUESDAY, MARCH 25, 2003
MS. SNEE: Hello, and thank you all for joining us tonight. In a moment we will be joined by an senior administration official who will give a few opening remarks, and then take some questions about the amendments to Executive Order 12,958 that the president signed today. So I think we are ready.
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Today the president signed an amendment, amended Executive Order 12,958. Many of you are probably aware of this -- there's been some media coverage of this in recent days and weeks, and the New York Times story of March 21 which discussed the issues.
The major features of the amended executive order are continuation -- continuation of the existing program of automatic declassification, which as established in the 1995 executive order, which has been a very successful program to ensure declassification of classified documents after 25 years, except in certain specified circumstances. Approximately a billion pages have been declassified since that time. And just by way of comparison, the 15 years preceding that approximately 200 million pages have been declassified. So this has been a very successful program in terms of declassification. The central feature of the executive order, the amendments signed today by the president, is to ensure continuation of that program. It also extends the deadline to the end of 2006, so that agencies which are going through the process of reviewing documents that are subject to automatic declassification can complete that project.
The executive order as amended also continues importantly the interagency security classification appeals panel, which was an important aspect of the executive order, and remains such and decides appeals from classification decisions. This executive order as amended reflects seven years of experience which, as I said, has been very successful with improvements and adjustments to continue to ensure that American people and historians have access to information while also maintaining the appropriate security for documents and information. It maintains the balance. It continues the program of automatic declassification. It reflects a careful process with affected agencies who have participated in this program and will continue to do so, participating in the process that led to this executive order.
With that I think we are prepared to take any questions.
OPERATOR: Very good. At this time if you have a question, you may press star-one, on our touch-tone phone, which will automatically place you into the queue until your name is announced. If someone has already asked your question and you want to remove yourself form the queue, you can press pound. At this time if you have a question, again that's star-one. And our first question from Scott Lindlaw with the Associated Press. Go ahead please. Mr. Lindlaw, is your phone muted?
Q: I'm sorry, yes.
OPERATOR: Very good. Go ahead, please.
Q: I want to make sure I understand the high points, because I didn't -- I couldn't hear the first part. Am I correct that this laser release of documents that were to be released after being 25 years old, it now delays the release until the end of 2006? And if that's correct, why do the delay? I assume it's to give agencies time to review. And, secondly, can you be specific as to how it makes it easier to reclassify information that could damage national security?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, in terms of it just extends the date for automatic declassification until the end of 2006. And this really reflects the need for agencies to continue and complete reviewing the backlog of classified historical records that are more than 25 years old.
Q: Do we know how many documents we are talking about? Any idea of the volume?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not have a specific number for you, but I think numbers over the past years that I gave you reflect the success that this program has achieved and it will continue to achieve.
Q: And had it been for this order, they would have been released as of April 17th, correct?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The automatic declassification would have occurred. But the problem that this particular aspect of it is designed to address is to ensure that the documents are reviewed, because although there's a presumption of automatic declassification, as you can well imagine there are exceptions to that for specified circumstances, for example revealing the identify of a confidential human source, or information related to weapons of mass destruction. Those are outlined in the executive order. And the important point is before anything is automatically released it needs to be reviewed. And this timeframe was seen as necessary, given the years of experience that we have had, to allow the agencies to complete the project. But the project has been successful, and we think it will continue to be successful. But this was, I think as I stated, it's important to maintain the balance here, and one of the aspects of that is making sure before anything is subject -- it is subject to proper review before it's released.
In terms of the reclassification, that's really a relatively minor issue. But the point there is that it's important to allow agencies to reclassify information that has been declassified and released, even if -- if it's reasonably retrievable, and it should be classified, in other words. If the information should be classified in the judgment of the agency and is reasonably retrievable, in the judgment of the executive order, should be subject to reclassification, again consistent with the standards that are outlined in the executive order. In other words, there is the automatic declassification after 25 years with the exceptions that are outlined in the executive order.
Q: Now, first of all, does this reclassification, doesn't it apply for the -- between the years 10 and 25?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is for information that is at any point that has been declassified and released but should be classified.
Q: So there's no time, not statute on it?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right, right.
Q: And did the Clinton order state that if there's a significant doubt about the need to declassify information it should be released? And your order in effect deletes that provision?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What's happened is prior executive orders before that 1995 order said if there's significant doubt it should be classified. And then the language in the 1995 order was if there's significant doubt it can be released. This doesn't say anything about significant doubt. It was the judgment of the professionals who deal with this and the judgment of the affect agencies that that language in either direction simply was vague and did not assist the process.
So we don't think that that represents anything other than a continuation of a desire to make the judgments based on the standards outlined in the executive --
Q: And then, lastly, am I correct that under the Clinton order information provided by -- in confidence by a foreign government was kept classified or declassified on a case-by-case basis, where this order presumes its classified?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's a presumption, but that's just a presumption. But the important point there is that it was again in the judgment of the affected agencies and professionals that confidential foreign government information is significantly sensitive and important, that there needs to be that presumption in there because of the -- again, the sensitivity of the information and the experience over the last seven years with that kind of information. And that was the determination that was made. It's not an absolute restriction. It's again a balance to ensure that we maintain the appropriate balance between openness and the need to protect the national security of the United States, which includes the need to protect confidential foreign government information under certain circumstances.
Q: Thank you.
OPERATOR: And our next question -- pardon my pronunciation -- comes from Olivier Knox from AFP. Go ahead please.
Q: Hi, I'm following up on what you just said. You mentioned the sensitivity of foreign government information. Is that informed by any particular incidents?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think we want to talk about particular incidents as opposed to talking about the processes as a whole that has resulted in these, in this continuation of the executive order reflected the need for this presumption. And so there's no particular incident, but there is -- again, this reflects an interagency process that presented views on issue that had arisen form the 1995 executive order. And, again, I think the important theme here is the continuation of the automatic declassification, which was the significant point here, and then with appropriate modifications that maintain the balance between release and protecting the national security. So this is just one area where that -- where the professionals who have dealt with the issue provided their experience and where the presumption was established.
Q: I don't mean to beat a dead horse here, but you said there were issues that had arisen. I am not asking you for a specific incident, because I understand the sensitivity here, but are you saying that they consider specific real-world problems --
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They consider their specific experience with the executive order and with foreign government information. And I am going to leave it at that.
Q: Okay. And a separate question. I understand this gives the CIA special powers to actually resist that interagency panel -- is that accurate?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's to protect intelligence sources and methods, which is seen as very important. Needless to say when the CIA has intelligence sources and methods, that's something that has been protected and recognized throughout the history of executive orders dealing with classification and declassification. And the director of the CIA is the person in the best position to know the sensitivity of that information. And so again, based on the experience of the professionals dealing with the executive order, it was seen that this was appropriate responsibility for the director of central intelligence to have.
Q: Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Brian Naylor with National Public Radio. Go ahead.
Q: Hi. Excuse me, I've got a bit of a learning curve here. Can you explain is this amendment a one-time thing? In other words, you are extending documents that were due to be declassified now will not be declassified for another three years. Is this an ongoing thing? So now will it be effectively 28 years? Or --
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, 25 years. And it's important to understand, in response to your question, that everyone understands, that documents remain -- will still be declassified during this period of time. It simply gives the agencies an additional period of time to complete their review. But as we have seen over the past seven years, when nearly a billion pages have been released, in the process of reviewing the records, the agencies have approved the release of an extraordinary amount of material. And that will continue. The point here is that the agencies haven't been able to complete the review of everything, which is obviously necessary to protect the national security and ensure that information is not inappropriately released, and it's just extending the time to finish the review. So I guess I would take issue with characterization of delay and release as opposed to releases -- release of information and documents will continue. It's providing extra time to complete the review, which I think everyone involved in this process understood was necessary in order that agencies carefully review information.
Q: If a document though is, say, due to be declassified next year, it could still be declassified next year, but they could also wait? I guess what I am trying to get at is is this just sort of a one-time extension, or do agencies now effectively have --
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it's intended to be an extension for the completion of the review. Obviously there was a predictive judgment based eight years ago on how long it would take to complete the review and for this declassification process to work. And the experience of those last -- since 1995, has shown that the program has been very successful in ensuring release of an extraordinary amount of information, also maintaining the balance of national security. What is necessary though is for the review to be completed. In other words, it would subject every document that is over 25 years old to automatic declassification. Well, needless to say, if there hasn't been time to finish the review of everything, no one would suggest that there should just be release without review. And that's what the original executive order in 1995 was designed to allow enough time for that to occur. This is recognizing that while significant amounts of information have been reviewed and released, that more time is necessary just to complete that project. And that again is the judgment of the professionals who deal with this issue on a regular basis. And, again, one of the upshots of the previous executive order, and the important ones, is that agencies have really -- agencies have done a superb job in establishing programs to ensure that they are complying with the automatic declassification and continuing classification of those records that fit into one of the exceptions, and then ensuring that the remainder do get released consistent with the executive order. And that will continue.
Q: And you said there was a backlog. Do you have any number as to how many documents or --
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not. That will be an agency-by-agency determination.
Q: And this is all executive -- all --?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Wendell Goaler I believe it is from Fox. Go ahead, please.
Q: A couple of questions. One, aside from the automatic exemption for documents that deal with weapons of mass destruction, how much of the change in procedure has to do with the 9/11 attacks? And is there any response to critics who voice concern about whether this change has the effect of allowing the current administration to keep classified documents from the first Bush administration?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of the first question, I think the executive order reflects the experience that has been occurring over many years in terms of maintaining the appropriate balance between national security and release of information. Nine-eleven obviously informs any assessment of defense of the homeland and national security information and the threats that are faced.
But this order in and of itself is -- reflects years of experience. Under the previous executive order it continues the program of automatic declassification, as I said, which is the central feature of the amendments today.
In terms of your second question, that's the first we heard of that.
OPERATOR: Thank you, then. Our next question is from Diego Alvarquin from Knight Ridder newspaper. Go ahead.
Q: Hi. I wonder if you could just clarify something I just caught the tail end of. Would documents that have already been released now be reviewable again? Would all documents that have been released been reviewed once, or is that not -- or is that only in response to the seven-year period?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Your question goes I think to the reclassification point, and that's only -- the point there is if something were inappropriately declassified, or if something happened that made it clear that something should be classified that had been declassified, something subsequent to the original declassification. Then there's authority to reclassify the information, but only if it meets the standards of course for classification. And that's really a protective device and is not -- the authority existed previously, and it is not expected to be employed often. But it's really a protective device. As anyone can imagine, there are going to be times when classified information should be, that has been declassified, either was done so inappropriately or subsequent information develops that makes it clear that the information should be classified.
Q: And would the backlog, the existing backlog be affected by a review of any documents to see if they were inappropriately declassified?
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
MS. SNEE: I think we have got time for two more questions.
OPERATOR: Okay, our next question comes from Maura Reynolds from the Los Angeles Times. Go ahead.
Q: Yes, sir. I was wondering if the administration is at all concerned at a time when the administration has been criticized for rolling back on civil liberties it's giving the -- that this order could be given the impression of further retreat and trying -- an attempt to be less accountable to the public.
SR. ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the order in fact makes it clear that there is a continuation of the program of automatic declassification and thus a continuation of the principle that documents after a certain period of time should be made available to the public, unless they fall into one of the excepted categories. And so really this is I think quite the contrary from the tenor of your question. This amendment, amended executive order, continues the central feature of the 1995 executive order, which is automatic declassification. And that is very important, because that prevents documents from being classified and remaining classified for decade after decade with no one ever releasing them when they in fact could be declassified. And so a central feature of the executive order signed today is to ensure automatic declassification, and to maintain the appropriate balance between openness and national security, and does so in a way that has worked over the past seven years, and will continue to work in a manner that we believe is appropriate.
OPERATOR: And at this time I have no more questions in the queue.
MS. SNEE: Great. Well, thank you all for joining us.