President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday that sets new rules for when government agencies can keep documents classified. The order is full of provisions that should make government transparency activists swoon. For example, within the next four years, the government will strive to declassify 400 million pages of historical documents.
The White House blog has more details after introducing the new order:
President Obama has issued a new executive order on “Classified National Security Information” (the Order) that addresses the problem of over-classification in numerous ways and will allow researchers to gain timelier access to formerly classified records.
Of particular importance to historians is the “principle that no records may remain classified indefinitely and provides enforceable deadlines for declassifying information exempted from automatic declassification at 25 years.” It directs the Archivist of the United States to “develop priorities for declassification activities under the NDC’s purview, with input from the general public and after taking into account researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification.”
As an historian with at least a passing interest in U.S. government documents, I believe this will help to, at the very least, establish a new sense of priorities in executive agencies that may counter their tendencies towards secrecy (if in doubt, classify it) that was bolstered under the Bush Administration.
The order may have less of an impact on contemporary transparency issues, despite the White House blog posting calling this the promotion of “openness and accountability.” The order specifically recognizes the importance of secrecy in the name of national security, for example, and certainly there have been instances of continued resistance to FOIA requests recently. (For more on FOIA battles, see: EFF’s FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government and the Sunlight Foundation on the Freedom of Information Act.)
In short, this will be good for historians, but may be of limited use for those more interested in contemporary issues.