Groups Urge White House to Take Lead in Reducing Secrecy

The White House should undertake a focused effort to reduce national security secrecy, some 30 public interest organizations urged President Obama in a letter today.

The groups called upon the President to adopt a recommendation of the Public Interest Declassification Board to set up a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee.

“A presidentially appointed Steering Committee would provide a mechanism for identifying and coordinating needed changes and for overcoming internal agency obstacles to change,” the group letter said. “It would also reflect the urgency of reining in a classification system that is largely unchecked.”

To be effective, though, the proposed Steering Committee would need to be something more than just a deliberative, coordinating body, such as the ill-fated Security Policy Board of the 1990s.

Specifically, it would require “a clear mandate to reduce the size and scope of the national security classification system,” the group letter said, as well as active White House participation to ensure agency cooperation and compliance.

In principle, reductions in national security secrecy can actually benefit government agencies by diminishing the significant financial and operational costs they incur for classification. But in practice, such reductions have been hard to accomplish and agencies have resisted any externally imposed limits on their presumed autonomy to classify as they see fit.

Of all the potential ways to reduce secrecy that could be envisioned, the proposal for a White House-led Steering Committee is currently the most salient.  That’s because it was recommended by the Public Interest Declassification Board, who developed it in response to a request from President Obama himself.

“I also look forward to reviewing recommendations from the study that the National Security Advisor will undertake in cooperation with the Public Interest Declassification Board to design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system,” the President wrote in a December 29, 2009 memorandum.

Now the recommendations that the President looked forward to are in hand, and it will be up to the White House to act.

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