The possibilities for significant changes in government secrecy policy are starting to attract official attention as the presidential transition process begins.
“I know things are going to change,” one executive branch official with national security classification responsibility said this morning. “The folks that are inbound have a keen appreciation for the kind of things that need to occur,” the official said.
He noted the role of John Podesta as leader of the transition team. Mr. Podesta, now at the Center for American Progress (where he said he will return after the transition), is a former Clinton White House chief of staff. He played an influential part in the development of the Clinton executive order on classification policy, which generally favored openness and dramatically increased declassification of historical records.
Mr. Podesta testified (pdf) on government secrecy policy before the Senate Judiciary Committee as recently as last September 16, where he presented his own agenda for secrecy reform.
His analysis was acute and his critique was eloquent. But many of his recommendations pointed backwards, towards undoing what the Bush Administration has done, rather than to a qualitatively new information security policy.
So, for example, the very first “key recommendation” in Mr. Podesta’s testimony was that “The next president should rewrite [President Bush's] Executive Order 13292 to reinstate the provisions of [President Clinton's] Executive Order 12958 that establish a presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt.”
But restoring a “presumption against classification in cases of significant doubt” will not accomplish much since executive branch classification officers do not experience significant doubt. There is no record of a single classification decision that was determined by the Clinton-era [and Carter-era] injunction not to classify in cases of doubt. Therefore adding such language back to the executive order on classification is not imperative.
A better starting point would be a systematic review of all of the thousands of agency classification guides, geared towards eliminating obsolete or unnecessary classification instructions. Classification guides are the secrecy system’s “software.” Revising and updating them would be likely to pay immediate dividends in reduced classification.
Beyond that, there may be a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally rethink the structure of the national security classification system, and to conceive of something altogether new, different, and better. What that might be remains to be discovered and articulated.
There is an old story of a Russian soldier who saved the life of the czar and was told that as a reward he could have anything he wanted. “Please change my commanding officer!” he begged.
In the coming weeks and months, it should be possible to do a lot better than that.