White House Seeks Public Input on Classified Records Policy

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

President Obama wants your advice on how the government should keep its secrets.

A month ago, he issued a memorandum directing national security advisers to recommend ways to improve the rules by which records are classified and later opened to the public. Starting Monday, tech-savvy citizens as well as federal officials will be able to weigh in on the complicated debate.

Beth Noveck, head of the White House's open government project, said yesterday that a blog dedicated to suggestions about the classification process will be set up on WhiteHouse.gov, where the open government project has been accepting ideas over the past month for how agencies can be more transparent. Suggestions from the blog will be considered for the final recommendations sent to the president.

The Declassification Policy Forum is the latest effort by the White House to include citizens in the policymaking process. Noveck, deputy chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said "creating an open conversation about secrecy represents an important step in the administration's commitment to an open dialogue, even in the most difficult areas."

Noveck said she expects to hear from librarians, archivists and other record management experts that government officials would not otherwise consult.

The questions posed on the forum will include: How should the government determine what records should be classified? How can the government improve access to digital records once they are declassified? How can technology be used to improve the declassification process?

In his May 27 memo, Obama asked for recommendations within 90 days. The current executive order dealing with classified records was signed by Bill Clinton in 1995 and requires all records to be declassified automatically 25 years after they were created.

But often, so many agencies weigh in on the process that it can take months for records to be made available to the public. The government has also been criticized for unnecessarily classifying too much material. And records from the 1980s, which are due to be declassified soon, were created using computer systems and programs that are now obsolete, putting those records in danger of being unrecoverable.

The discussion will center around four main topics: declassification policy, establishing a National Declassification Center to promote interagency cooperation, classification policy and technology opportunities. The blog will accept comments on each for three days; the forum will run through July 13.

Martin Faga, the chairman of the Public Interest Declassification Board, a White House advisory group, has asked archival experts and security advisers to submit ideas through the blog rather than internally, so that it "will help the creative process."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said it is encouraging that the administration wants to gather public input on the classification issue.

"But we don't know if the public comments will be useful, and we don't know if they will be influential," he said. "Just because somebody has a good idea doesn't mean the government is going to accept it. I would not confuse the process with the outcome."

He said the main problem is that agencies are classifying too much information to avoid controversy or to gain a political advantage.

"It's a powerful political tool that can be abused unless there are effective prohibitions," he said.

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