When George W. Bush took office twelve years after the end of Reagan’s presidency, however, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales sent the national archivist a note instructing him that the new president wished to delay the release of any Reagan files. The closing line? “This directive applies as well to the Vice Presidential records of former Vice President George H. W. Bush.” Then, in November 2001, the administration issued a new executive order that declared that records from prior administrations would not be released unless the sitting president expressly approved it. But that order went even further: endowing past presidents with the power to keep their documents from being released even after the twelve-year threshold. Vice presidents, too—a category that included Bush’s father at the date of the order and now includes Dick Cheney—were given the authority to hold their records. As if that weren’t hubristic enough, Bush’s order allowed past presidents and vice presidents—or their heirs—to pass on their withholding privileges to representatives in perpetuity. “It was essentially overturning the Presidential Records Act,” says Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, an independent research institute at George Washington University. Obama has promised to nullify the Bush order, which he could do with a simple executive order.
The National Security Archive and a coalition of sixty organizations that work on transparency and openness issues have proposed another executive order that Obama could issue early in his term—one that would create a task force to determine how to rein in the worst excesses in the information-classification system, the federal government’s primary tool for official secrecy. Over many years, a perennial series of blue-ribbon commissions has suggested that over-classification is a serious problem in the federal government, not only for the public’s historical interest but also for data-sharing among agencies. For one, the 9/11 Commission warned that such “secrecy stifles oversight, accountability, and information-sharing.” Former congressman Lee Hamilton, who was vice-chairman of the commission, estimated that about 70 percent of the information he viewed was “needlessly classified”—a shockingly high portion given the sorts of records the commission needed to do its work.
Officially, federal law only describes three levels of classification: “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential.” The process is statutorily overseen by the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives, which collects data on the quantity of classified information, monitors agencies’ compliance with classification rules, and handles appeals of classification decisions. A limited number of agencies and individuals are authorized to classify material, and while there are widely used provisions for exemptions and extensions, classified information is supposed to be automatically declassified after ten years.
The amount of classified information, and the number of people authorized to deem it classified, have been expanding since 2000. The departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, were authorized to classify for the first time early in the Bush administration. In 2007, the most recent year for which records are available, a report by the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) catalogued more than twenty-three million classification actions government-wide; in 2000, the number was just over eleven million, although some of this increase can surely be attributed to the growth of digital communication.
In 2003, classification’s durability and reach were extended by another Bush executive order that mandated a three-year moratorium on many automatic declassifications, allowed the CIA director to overrule declassification decisions made by the Oversight Office, and expanded classification for information provided by foreign governments—a category that could include such historical treasure troves as diplomatic cables and the like. It also made it easier for agencies to reclassify information that they had previously declassified, as long as there was some plausible way to retrieve the documents from the public realm.