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Obama orders review of classification process

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  1. Freedom of Information
President Obama asked his national security adviser on Wednesday to review how the country classifies its secrets. He also asked…

President Obama asked his national security adviser on Wednesday to review how the country classifies its secrets. He also asked agency heads to lean toward leaving documents unclassified unless necessary.

The requests came in a memorandum following this week’s merger of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, which consolidated staff for the two offices under National Security Adviser James Jones.

In the memo, Obama outlined several steps he wants agency leaders to take over the next 90 days. The president called on Jones to survey officials in the executive branch about the processes they use for classifying sensitive information, and report back with recommendations for making those processes more transparent.

The directive also specifically asked Jones to look into the creation of a National Declassification Center; ways to cut down on over-classification; making it easier for agencies to share classified information; a ban on re-classification; and dealing with electronic records.

The National Declassification Center would be part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which has been taking a higher profile role in information policy issues of late. Endorsed by the Information Security Oversight Office, which is part of the National Archives, the center would bring together representatives of various government agencies in an effort to speed declassification review where multiple agencies have an interest in the security of the same piece of information.

Obama’s memo also calls for the creation of a task force to examine information the government considers "controlled unclassified information", or "CUI", which is data deemed sensitive but cannot formally be classified as secret. The task force will be led by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

Access to CUI has been an issue since immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when government agencies began to use the designation to withhold information from the public under a FOIA exemption that only applies to information that meets proper classification standards.

Obama gave the task force several mandates: "These imperatives include protecting legitimate security, law enforcement, and privacy interests as well as civil liberties, providing clear rules to those who handle (sensitive but unclassified) information, and ensuring that the handling and dissemination of information is not restricted unless there is a compelling need."