PRESIDENT REAGAN'S new executive order on classifying national security information is good news for people in the rubber stamp and ink business. It is bad news for people who believe that the flow of information is essential to the health of a democracy. Mr. Reagan has in effect reversed a 25- year presumption that the public interest lies in maximum disclosure. His order shifts the presumption a long way toward secrecy. This is truly regrettable, not least because the president's counselor, Edwin Meese III, had assured anxious critics that the restrictive early drafts were the handiwork of "overzealous bureaucrats."
The final draft, published a few days ago, does show a few welcome second thoughts. It restores the requirement of the Jimmy Carter order to mark the portions of documents meant to be kept secret. It restores, too, the Carter prohibition against classifying basic scientific research not clearly related to national security. It drops a proposal to create a new classification of peripheral "restricted" information--this could have forced universities that won't do classified work out of certain types of research they conduct now.
In its main components, however, the Reagan order is bad. It eliminates the need for an official opposing declassification to identify the damage he claims would be done by disclosure--a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee opposed this change. It wipes out the requirement that, in disclosure decisions, the government balance benefit against harm. It lets the government reclassify information sought under the Freedom of Information Act, even after the information has been released. It instructs classifiers, when in doubt, to apply the higher rather than the lower level of secrecy.
Mr. Reagan believes his order strikes a "proper balance" between secrecy and disclosure. Few in Congress appear to agree, and some are already planning to do something about it. Up to this point, it has been left to the president to decide what is secret and what is not. The Freedom of Information Act, for instance, defers to the president in the national security area. Now Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, says he will introduce legislation to remove the FOIA from exclusive presidential hands. Mr. Durenberger is no firebrand. He simply believes the president has gone too far. He is right.