WASHINGTON, D.C.–Vowing to bring secrecy rules into line “with our vision of American democracy in the post-cold-war world,” President Clinton in mid-April overhauled government classification procedures with a new executive order that should significantly reduce the government’s abilities to classify documents and to keep records classified after the need for secrecy has passed.
The new executive order automatically declassifies classified records after 10 or 25 years except where specific exemptions apply and an appeals panel agrees to the continued classification.
The President said his administration would “no longer tolerate the excesses” of the current classification system. His order replaces a 1982 order by President Ronald Reagan that allowed stockpiles of classified information to accrue.
The Reagan order provided no automatic declassification date and actually allowed agencies to reclassify information after it had been released.
The new order allows classification of information subject of an unauthorized release, but prohibits classification of information agencies have already made public.
A major change from the Reagan order is the instruction to federal employees to challenge improper classification orders. The Reagan order instead emphasized the importance of protecting classified records, and federal classifiers were encouraged to err on the side of secrecy rather than disclosure.
The federal Freedom of Information Act requires all federal records to be open unless an exemption applies. The first FOI Act exemption protects records classified “under criteria established by an Executive order” to be secret to protect national defense or foreign policy interests. (Executive Order 12958)
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