Obama’s Secrets: Even His Declassification Effort Lacks Transparency

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SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Kirkwood Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 10, 2012.

Barack Obama disappointed many on the left who thought they were getting a liberal president on national security issues. The man who pledged to roll back George W. Bush legacy as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008 quickly became equally or more hawkish than his predecessor on parts of the War one Terror, the use of drones and other high-profile issues.

Nowhere is that more visible than in government secrecy. Among Obama’s first acts as President was the issuance on Jan. 21, 2009 of a memo to cabinet and other officials admonishing transparency. The same day he declared that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

As it turns out, Obama has been the most aggressive President ever in going after leakers of classified information, charging six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all previous Presidents combined. Most recently, in response to charges his aides leaked classified material for political gain, Obama introduced additional new measures to combat leaks.

Obama claims there’s a logic to what the left and right label hypocrisy. Even as he aggressively goes after government leakers (and subpoenas reporters) for disclosing sensitive government information, Obama says he is trying to diminish the number of secrets that need to be protected. The argument here is similar to the one we described in our Wikileaks cover, namely that excessive classification is part of the problem: the more secrets you create, the more people get clearance to look at them, the less important “secrecy” becomes, the more likely there will be leaks. Instead of a low fence around a huge number of secrets, Obama says he’s trying to create a high fence around the secrets that really matter.

Two years after Obama ordered a review of “overclassification,” the preliminary results are in and nominally Obama has something to point to in the way of classification reform. The Department of Defense, which has been the most aggressive government agency in resisting classification reform, has announced it will eliminate some 20% of its “classification guides”, the manuals that compile rules Pentagon employees and contractors must follow in creating government secrets.

But if that sounds like it means government will be creating many fewer secrets, the invaluable Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists points out there may be less there than meets the eye:

The practical effect of these startling reductions is hard to assess, and it may well be less substantial than the impressive numbers would suggest.  To the extent that the cancelled guides pertain to programs that have been terminated, their elimination will have no effect whatsoever.  Likewise, to the extent that their contents may have been incorporated into or are duplicative of other guides which have not been cancelled, the result is a wash.

In some cases, it is certain that no declassification resulted from the process.  Thus, the Joint Staff, DARPA, and DTRA all state explicitly that none of their information was declassified as a result of the Fundamental Review, since it was all deemed to be properly classified.

In other cases, however, some declassification is known to have occurred due to the Review.  The National Reconnaissance Office, for example, downgraded several categories of classified NRO information and declassified two of them:  “the identification of a contractor as an NRO satellite vehicle contractor” and “the ‘fact of’ real-time command and control telemetry.”

Even such narrow modifications can produce measurable changes in disclosure policy.  In 2008, the “fact of” NRO radar satellite reconnaissance was declassified, which led to the release this week of an extensive body of NRO material about the QUILL synthetic aperture radar satellite, which flew in 1964.

But the general lack of clarity concerning the results of the Fundamental Review is something of a disappointment.  Moreover, it is not consistent with the guidance that was provided to agencies last January by the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), John P. Fitzpatrick.

“To the greatest extent possible,” Mr. Fitzpatrick wrote then, the final reports of the Fundamental Review “should be informative as to how much information that was classified is no longer classified as a result of the review.  The report should also provide the best estimate of how much information that would normally have been classified in the future will now not become classified.”

10 comments
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protank
protank

Barack Mittens Bush, They are all the same. Obama is a Bush of another color thats all. Yet, Libs hated Bush and love Obatman. Silly libs.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Going after leakers and being transparent are two different things. Obama took an oath to protect and defend this nation. He's doing a pretty darned good job of it, too!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©
ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

 Obama's attacks on whistle-blowers and journalists are one of the main reasons I will be voting for Jill Stein, instead, this fall.

~

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

Actually, as both a Senator and as President, Obama took an oath to protect the US Constitution. He broke the oath he took as Senator when he signed-off on FISA. You could imagine - though there's no way for any of us to know - that that helped to defend the nation.

bobell
bobell

One more thing: About Obama's efforts at disclosure lacking transparency -- Compared to what?  What's your benchmark for transparency, MC?  Would you have been happier if the Manhattan Project publicized its doings in daily handouts?  Should C-SPAN broadcast NSC meetings live? What's "transparency"?

Your report doesn't justify your headline.  allthings got it exactly right. 

anon76returns
anon76returns

@Massimo- your posted link seems to indicate that the reason that there wasn't a greater level of declassification wasn't because of a lack of top-down clarity from the boss, but rather that the institutionalized bureaucracy at DOD didn't fully comply with the order.  Hard to see how you can then accuse the President's effort of lacking transparency.  It lacks results, but the effort is apparently there.

allthingsinaname
allthingsinaname

 Lacks results? How so? What secrets are being kept that shouldn't be? If the Government was being transparent what would we know that we don't?

His post lacks substance ; I do not know what he wants us to know that we don't know, and why we don't know them.

bobell
bobell

This is is one topic I know a little about.  It's extremely problematic.  As an abstract proposition, it would seem preferable to classify more documents than might seem necessary, lest the inadvertent release of real secrets damage the interests of the United States.  It's not as if anyone can draw an absolute line between damaging documents and innocuous ones. But if you lean in favor of disclosure you're going to let stuff out that you shouldn't have.  Among other things, you have to balance the desire for disclosure against the constant complaints that China is stealing our technology.

In practice, at least in my exprerience, we err on the side of protection. It's probably a good idea every now and then to conduct a review and reconsider classified documents that time has rendered innocuous.  But then you run up against the sheer volume of the stuff, and usually about the only way for the private sector to get a classification review is to demand particular documents or info on particular topics.  A further problem is that it's often difficult to find a person who knows enough to render a judgment on whether declassification is appropriate; much of what's classified is technology, and for each colorful instance of classified documents protecting the technology of the paper clip there are dozens or hundreds that really do need protection.

The Obama Administration is hardly alone in having to try to square this particular circle. When compared to the Reagan and Bush eras, the announced policy, at least, is much more in favor of transparency.  In fact, much of the classification backlog is the residue of the Reagan and Bush years, when people wielded CONFIDENTIAL rubber stamps as Dom DeLuise used to wield forks.

So, sure, you can come at this from an angle that makes the Administration look bad -- or, with a different angle, good.  But for once there is a relatively central position.  The Obama Administration, to judge from its deeds and not its words. is striving to hold that middle ground.  Anecdotes or isolated examples supporting one view or the other are not terribly persuasive in this context.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

Thank you for that explanation bobell. As a librarian this is something that concerns me as well and some of my understanding is as you note, "the residue ... [from] when people wielded CONFIDENTIAL rubber stamps as Dom DeLuise used to wield forks."

I give them credit for trying to deal with this significant problem in a rational way.

allthingsinaname
allthingsinaname

I can't wait until MS posts his article ; there seems to be a feeling that Mitt is losing his edge here at Time.