Skip to content

Presidential directive changes 'tone' of classification rules

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Presidential directive changes ‘tone’ of classification rules

  • In an amendment to the existing classification order issued by President Clinton in 1995, President Bush made few but important changes that determine what will be classified, how and for how long.

March 26, 2003 — President George W. Bush signed an amendment to the presidential order on classification March 25 that eliminated a key feature of the Clinton administration’s directive. The Clinton memorandum ordered no classification if there is “significant doubt” that disclosure could harm national security. The Bush amendment eliminates that feature.

The amendment makes a few other changes, but retains most of the language in the Clinton order issued in 1995. A key draftsman told public interest attorneys and others last week that the revisions represent a “change in tone.”

Bill Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, told the group that the timing of the amendment was driven less by any wartime need to protect national security than by an approaching April deadline for releasing records slated for automatic declassification absent government action. This directive extends that deadline through 2006.

The Bush amendment calls for automatic classification of foreign government information where disclosure is not authorized, under a presumption that release would damage national security.

It gives the director of the Central Intelligence Agency new veto power over decisions by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which hears appeals of agency refusals to declassify information. The CIA veto power is narrow and not necessarily final (provisions in the new order allow for presidential review of the veto) but it represents an additional check on ISCAP decisions that information should be disclosed.

The order also allows reclassification of records that already have been disclosed or declassified when the head of the agency rules that it is necessary and the information can be reasonably recovered.

Leonard’s characterization of the order as a “change in tone” mirrors a description by Justice department attorneys of the differences between the directions of current Attorney General John Ashcroft and his predecessor Janet Reno to federal agencies on how they should respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The 1995 Clinton order, the first issued since 1982, responded to increasingly frequent complaints that vast overclassification of records was crippling the ability of outside researchers and even of federal agencies to understand national security matters. It limited the circumstances for classifying records, called for automatic declassification after 10 or 25 years absent compelling reasons, and set up the ISCAP review board, which has released at least 70 percent of the records it has reviewed.

The federal Freedom of Information Act allows records to be withheld only if they fall within one of nine exemptions. The first exemption allows agencies to withhold records that are “properly classified” under an executive order.

(Amendments to Exec. Order No. 12,958) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page