President Obama, it seems, is more than just talking a good game about the need to cut down on the amount of excess government secrecy.
The day after he took office, Obama issued an executive order reversing a Bush administration directive encouraging agencies to err on the side of secrecy. Instead, he said, he wanted "a presumption in favor of openness."
He might have left it at that, knowing that over time the bureaucracies would revert to that protective iteration: When in doubt, stamp it secret.
But last week, Obama ordered what looks to be a serious assault against unnecessary secrecy, which is both silly and inefficient — 107 different stamps for limiting the distribution of information; expensive — $8.6 billion last year, and that doesn’t count the spy agencies whose budgets for keeping secrets are, well, a secret; and bad government, because the government agencies not only keep information from the public, they keep it from each other.
First, Obama asked national security adviser James Jones to consult with executive-branch agencies about any needed improvements in the existing presidential order on classification that lays out the standards for labeling information "confidential," "secret" and "top secret."
The president also established a task force — to be headed by Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — one of whose tasks will be to get a handle on the pernicious but widespread ways not covered by executive orders the bureaucracies have devised to keep information secret — arbitrary classifications like "sensitive but unclassified," "limited official distribution" or "for official use only."
Obama also asked Jones to study the establishment of a National Declassification Center to clear up a backlog of 51 million pages that haven’t been declassified because they must be reviewed by as many as 10 agencies that had a hand in classifying them in the first place. The center would allow multiple agencies to review information in one place.
Jones, Holder and Napolitano are to report back to the president within 90 days — publicly, we trust.