Secret no more

Midnight on Dec. 31 will be a signal moment for scholars of modern history and not just because it’s New Year’s Eve and they’re breaking out the bubbly in think tanks and faculty clubs.

President Bush — quite frankly to general surprise — has ordered that at that moment all classified records more than 25 years old and of historical value "shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed." That means that the bureaucracies will no longer be able to maintain secrecy by inaction or short staffing.

There are exceptions — for information on war plans or WMD, for example, and for personal-privacy considerations. And secret material involving more than one agency won’t begin being automatically declassified until Dec. 31, 2009.

There are many who thought this moment would never come, at least for the length of the Bush administration. In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring the automatic declassification to begin in 2000. The agencies protested, so Bush delayed it for three years and then again for another three years.

Given the Bush White House’s love of secrecy, its reclassification of information already public and its assertion of the right to classify material in the presidential libraries, it seemed probable that another three-year delay was in the offing.

But Bush reaffirmed the executive order, and even such critics as the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy praised it as "a genuine innovation." Said Steven Aftergood of the FAS: "It is a credit both to the Clinton administration, which first adopted the proposal, and the Bush administration, which did not abandon it."

Prior to this, researchers had to specifically request declassification. Now they’ll have the opposite problem. The midnight document dump involves hundreds of millions of pages, including 270 million from the FBI alone, covering such landmark events as the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis and government surveillance of antiwar protesters in the ’60s and’70s.

Knock yourself out, people.