PROTECTING STATE secrets and safeguarding national security are paramount. But needlessly keeping classified records under lock and key for more than 25 years or slapping "classified" on unworthy documents helps neither the American people nor history. The four elements of an executive order issued by President Obama last month will change that.
The overriding principle is that "no information may remain classified indefinitely." To that end, a National Declassification Center (NDC) will be established at the National Archives that would allow staff from relevant agencies to review documents set for public release under one roof. The new center would have until Dec. 31, 2013, to eliminate a backlog of 400 million records that go as far back as World War II. To ensure that records are being properly classified, Mr. Obama ordered agencies to review their guidelines. He reemphasized the standing rule that an agency seeking to classify a record must identify the damage to national security its release would cause. Also, the order makes it more difficult to reclassify information after it already has been properly declassified.
After 25 years, documents are automatically declassified unless they reveal sensitive information, such as details on U.S. military plans that remain in effect. Under the Obama order, an agency could seek to extend the period through a review at the NDC. In most cases, the material would have to be made public not more than 50 years from the date of origin. Information that receives an extension will automatically be declassified after 75 years, unless the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) approves a request to keep the record secret. Only information revealing a human intelligence source or key elements of weapons of mass destruction could hold the record back.
Mr. Obama eliminated a rule involving ISCAP set by President George W. Bush in 2003. In that order, if the director of national intelligence didn't want a record declassified, he could prevent it over the objections of a majority of the panel. Now, if the director or any other agency has an objection, an appeal must be made directly to the president. According to William J. Bosanko, ISCAP's executive secretary, based on the panel's experience so far, it is not anticipated that this will ever happen.
More changes are expected. Mr. Obama said he looks forward to recommendations from Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, "to design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system." We understand the tug of war between protecting national security and the public's right to know. But we hope Gen. Jones finds a balance that significantly increases the openness that the president seeks.