Is the White House ready to take up classification reform?


The Public Interest Declassification Board meets publicly tomorrow amid anticipation that the Obama administration may at last take up the panel’s recommendations for modernizing the national security classification system.

Those 14 recommendations are now almost a year old; the first was for the White House to name a steering committee to guide implementation of the other 13. “All indications are” that the administration is now going to appoint a committee along those lines,  John Powers, a staff member for the declassification board, said in a phone interview today.

A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council could not be reached for comment.

The board issued the recommendations last December in response to a 2009 charge from President Obama for a “more fundamental transformation” of the classification system, whose roots date back to World War Two.

Among its suggested changes, the advisory panel urged compressing the current three-tier system to two; requiring automatic declassification  of records with short-lived sensitivity; and providing “safe harbor” to classifying officials who decide that something doesn’t warrant a secrecy stamp. Among the other participants in tomorrow’s meeting–to be held at the National Archives in Washington–will be Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has introduced a bill incorporating some of the board’s ideas.

Since last year, the stresses on the status quo have grown starkly visible, largely because of the disclosures of classified information from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Those in turn have prompted equally unprecedented–albeit authorized–releases by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other parts of the intelligence community, ostensibly in the interest of setting the record straight.

“The events of the last year have given even greater urgency to the topic of classification reform,” Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a separate interview. Whether the board’s recipe for change is the right one is a separate question, Aftergood said, but there’s little disagreement that both classification and declassification practices “are ripe for reconsideration.”


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