Executive Order Reduces Total Of Classified Papers

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 For example, within the next four years, the government will strive to declassify 400 million pages of historical documents.

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President Obama has given a late Christmas gift to historians and advocates of more open government. Mr. Obama signed an executive order yesterday intended to substantially reduce the number of classified documents.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The president's 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 For example, within the next four years, the government will strive to declassify 400 million pages of historical documents.

Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive says that's about 10 times the current declassification rate.

Ms. MEREDITH FUCHS (National Security Archive): It would lead to the release of hundreds of thousands, millions of pages of records related to World War II, the Vietnam War, Korean War - I mean, things that historians are really eager to get their hands on.

SHAPIRO: So someone like you must be salivating right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FUCHS: I think so, me and the history and political science departments at all the major universities.

SHAPIRO: There are even wonkier parts of the order, too. Danielle Brian says those are the provisions that make her the most excited. She directs the Project on Government Oversight.

Ms. DANIELLE BRIAN (Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight): One of the things that's been a problem for us is third-agency documents, where we want a document that was actually originated by one agency, but another agency holds it.

SHAPIRO: You mean, for example, the CIA asks the Justice Department to write an opinion about the definition of torture.

Ms. BRIAN: Perfect example. Exactly. That's the kind of thing that, you know, that's no longer going to be an excuse to withhold documents.

SHAPIRO: Brian says the new rules will also keep the government from retroactively classifying documents. For example, many years ago, Brian's organization was investigating Area 51, a site in the Nevada desert. Conspiracy theorists believe the government has hidden UFOs and alien bodies at that site.

Ms. BRIAN: This is long before there were video games about it. It was a super-secret Air Force facility, and the government didn't want to acknowledge its existence. And it was actually over environmental crimes, was our issues.

SHAPIRO: Not about aliens.

Ms. BRIAN: It was not about aliens. So, in that case, we were able to get a manual for Area 51 employees that told them things like this is where you park your car, here are the vending machines. And we got this manual and put it out as evidence that this place must exist because they have vending machines and parking spots. The Air Force actually retroactively classified that document.

SHAPIRO: The new rules say that won't happen anymore, and the order has broad statements that mark a significant turning point for America, says Steven Aftergood. He directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Director, Project on Government Secrecy, the Federation of American Scientists): What the president's executive order has stated for the first time is that records will not remain classified indefinitely. There's nothing in the U.S. government that will remain secret forever. And that's a really profound and fundamental principle.

SHAPIRO: The president instructs each agency to review its rules for classification with the goal of making more documents public. In the past, agencies could veto a declassification decision, but not anymore. Now the final decision about declassification lies with the president. The order creates a center at the National Archives to make decisions about declassifying historical national security documents.

President Obama talked about these issues as a senator and a candidate. But once he took office, there was some pushback from intelligence agencies. Aftergood says many of the provisions in this order came from suggestions that public interest groups made.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: So, there's a feeling that the voices of the public were listened to, at least in part, and that they made a difference in the outcome.

SHAPIRO: In the order, President Obama says he expects this will be just the beginning, and he hopes to work towards designing a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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