I mentioned in The Roundup yesterday that the President had released new rules on classification and secrecy, and at first glance, they seemed pretty broad. Charlie Savage, who’s more of an authority on this, had a different reaction.

President Obama declared on Tuesday that “no information may remain classified indefinitely” as part of a sweeping overhaul of the executive branch’s system for protecting classified national security information.

In an executive order and an accompanying presidential memorandum to agency heads, Mr. Obama signaled that the government should try harder to make information public if possible, including by requiring agencies to regularly review what kinds of information they classify and to eliminate any obsolete secrecy requirements.

“Agency heads shall complete on a periodic basis a comprehensive review of the agency’s classification guidance, particularly classification guides, to ensure the guidance reflects current circumstances and to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified,” Mr. Obama wrote in the order, released while he was vacationing in Hawaii.

These are fairly broad guidelines, as I said earlier, but they do appear to move in the right direction. You can read the executive order and the memorandum to agency heads yourself, which I suppose is a form of transparency already. Savage highlights some positive innovations, to which I’ve added:

• Obama enshrines the general principle in his executive order that information from the government eventually gets to be free. Some of Obama’s own policies, like stopping the release of prisoner abuse photos from Iraq and Afghanistan, seem to contradict that, but this does set a precedent for future Presidents to release as much information as possible.

• There’s a goal of four years to declassify historical documents through the new National Declassification Center, housed at the National Archives.

• Only the President can now overrule an interagency panel of the intelligence community’s decision to declassify material. George W. Bush allowed the Director of National Intelligence to have that authority.

• This is right from the EO: “If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information, it shall not be classified.”

• And there’s another line that appears to end what Marcy Wheeler refers to as “pixie dust,” or automatic declassification: “Classified information shall not be declassified automatically as a result of any unauthorized disclosure of identical or similar information.”

• Remember that Dick Cheney had his own personal secret document designation that he would stamp on documents? From the EO: “Except as otherwise provided by statute, no other terms (beyond Top Secret, Secret and Confidential) shall be used to identify United States classified information.”

• I do think the classification authority looks a bit loose, with a lot of people in the government allowed to classify information, but the delegation of that authority has been tightened.

Overall, this does look like a step forward for transparency from the Obama Administration.

David Dayen

David Dayen