Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama White House Seeks Delay On Declassification

Secret agencies like their secrets secret. Even old secrets. The Boston Globe reported Sunday that “roadblocks” and “turf battles” among government agencies will likely delay the release of millions of pages of documents scheduled to be declassified on December 31. Some date back to World War II.

In spite of President Obama’s pledge to bring new openness to government, the executive order drafted to replace one signed by President Bush in 2003 “is meeting resistance from key national security and intelligence officials, delaying its approval.” To head off the deadline, the new draft order may have to modify the “automatic declassification” provisions of a Bush Executive Order:

Section 3.3(e)(3) By notification to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, before the records are subject to automatic declassification, an agency head or senior agency official designated under section 5.4 of this order may delay automatic declassification for up to 3 years for classified records that have been referred or transferred to that agency by another agency less than 3 years before automatic declassification would otherwise be required.

When is “automatic declassification” not automatic? When agency officials can drag their feet indefinitely. To meet the looming deadline, the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News reports, “several agencies would have to forgo a review of the affected historical records, which they are unwilling to do. And so it seems they will simply be excused from compliance.”

According to the Boston Globe:

“They never want to give up their authority,” said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, a research center at George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified information. “The national security bureaucracy is deeply entrenched and is not willing to give up some of the protections they feel they need for their documents.”

Our documents, they need to be reminded. The Globe concludes by acknowledging that even declassification does not render a document public:

Officials estimate that there are 400 million pages of historical documents that have been declassified but remain in government records centers and have not been processed at the National Archives, where the public can view them.

One such document is the official crash report on the B-29 that crashed during a test flight near Waycross, GA in 1948. Writing for the New Jersey Post-Courier in 2003, Matt Katz laid out the details fifty-five years later. The crash killed nine, including three civilian contractors from RCA. The contractors’ widows tried in vain to find out what happened in their husbands’ last moments. After the widows filed a lawsuit charging negligence, the government quashed the case by declaring the official crash report a state secret. United States v. Reynolds (1952) was the landmark case that formally recognized the state secrets privilege.

Only by accident did the daughter of one contractor come across the Air Force accident report – declassified in 2000 – for sale on the Internet. An engine had caught fire. The plane broke apart in mid-air. But there was more, Katz writes: “Failure to follow procedure. Failure to carry out special safety orders. Pilot error. These were the causes identified by the Air Force – all evidence that could have been used 50 years ago to support the claims of negligence.”

There was more:

• Two Air Force orders calling for changes in the exhaust system – "for the purpose of eliminating a definite fire hazard" – were not complied with. The fire began in the exhaust system.

• An Air Force order requiring the inspection of rivets was ignored. Loose rivets may have been a factor in the crash.

• The plane needed "more than the normal amount of maintenance." It had been out of commission because of technical problems 97 of the 189 days before the crash.

The victims’ families in this case only had to wait half a century for their answers from the military. Now, after extensions by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, America’s secret agencies will get yet another extension from the Obama administration “of an undetermined length - possibly years,” according to the Globe report.

Change deferred. Is it change denied?

(Cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future.)

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