Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cold War Records Could Be Unfrozen Soon

There is reportedly an executive order pending that could result in the expeditious declassification of more than 400 million pages of Cold War-era documents, as well as instituting procedural changes that would reduce the number of government records kept from the public.

Secrecy News has a post about this, along with a link to an Associated Press story that came out yesterday. See New Executive Order Awaits Presidential Decision:

A new draft executive order on national security classification and declassification policy is expected to be presented to President Obama this week for his personal resolution of issues which remain in dispute among policymakers and affected agencies, especially intelligence agencies.

This marks the first time since the first Bush Administration, nearly two decades ago, that a President has needed to make a final determination on the contents of an executive order because staffers and agencies were unable to reach a consensus view. (Correction: There is a more recent precedent for such presidential involvement. According to Morton Halperin, President Clinton was presented with a “split memo” in 1995 on the question of whether to include a public interest balancing test for declassification in executive order 12958. President Clinton decided against it.)

The currently disputed issues are believed to include the composition of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, including whether it should include representatives of ODNI or CIA or both, and whether the intelligence agencies should continue to have the veto over Panel declassification decisions that was granted by the George W. Bush Administration.

The final order, which is likely to be issued before the end of December, is expected among other things to direct agencies to conduct a Fundamental Classification Guidance Review in order to eliminate obsolete classification requirements, and to establish a National Declassification Center to coordinate and expedite declassification of historical records, as described in a previous draft dated August 4, 2009.

See “Obama Plan Could Limit Records Hidden From Public” by Pete Yost, Associated Press, December 20, 2009.

No doubt there are legitimate reasons to keep some documents classified indefinitely, but surely 99% of Cold War era records could be safely released at this point. I've done research into U.S. policies and programs for what was then called psychological warfare - and today would be called public diplomacy - directed toward Hungary in the years preceding the 1956 Uprising and I find it hard to believe there could be any good argument for not releasing the few remaining classified records on that matter, to name just one significant episode of the Cold War.

Incidentally, one side effect of more declassification would be to benefit the State Department's Office of the Historian (HO) in its competition with non-official entities such as Georgetown University's National Security Archive. Non-official archivists of public records are free to post classified documents that were leaked or otherwise improperly released, giving those academic freebooters an advantage over the HO, which must strictly respect the archival principle of provenance. Once Cold War diplomatic documents are properly declassified, they will enter the public record via the HO and its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.

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