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Declassifying government information: a good progress report

By Christy Mumford Jerding
Roslyn Mazer...
Roslyn Mazer
ARLINGTON, Va. — Despite the government's ingrained belief that loose lips sink ships, a presidential panel has been able to "move a huge glacier of secrecy in the direction of maximum responsible disclosure," Roslyn Mazer said today at the opening session of The Freedom Forum's Freedom of Information Day conference.

Mazer, chairwoman of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), told lawyers, librarians and access advocates that "ISCAP has slain" the idea that "government cannot reform itself."

The panel, made up of representatives from the CIA, FBI, National Security Council, the Department of Justice and other agencies, has voted consistently to declassify scores of government records, Mazer said. About 83% of the cases heard since 1996, when the panel was put in place by President Clinton's executive order, have ended with all or some portions of the documents declassified. The panel was charged with reviewing documents that federal agencies say should be exempt from automatic declassification after 25 years.

Some of the material released includes information on the nuclear capabilities of South Korea, Israel and European nations — considered highly secret during the Cold War, she noted.

But Mazer, also a special counsel for intellectual property at the Department of Justice and formerly the department's chief policy adviser on FOIA standards, admits that panel members and advocates for openness have a long way to go toward prying open more government file cabinets.

"ISCAP's caseload represents only a small fraction of [documents in] the classification program. How can its work really affect government-wide, day-to-day declassification efforts?"

Two ways, Mazer said:

  • Review of proposed agency declassification guides. Agency heads who don't want certain documents declassified after 25 years must submit their appeal to ISCAP, Mazer said. She expects many of those appeals this year to include the agencies' own declassification guides — what type of information to keep secret and for how long. Through review of the guides, Mazer said she hopes ISCAP can work with agencies to produce "workable guides" that will lead to the declassification of thousands of documents.

  • Outreach to the "declassification community." Mazer said ISCAP had begun to conduct workshops where declassification specialists review and discuss ISCAP cases — why some material was declassified, why other was kept secret.

    Besides communication, ISCAP is wrestling with two other "thorny issues," Mazer said:

  • How to treat information from foreign governments. The longstanding rule of thumb on foreign government information, or FGI, was to "classify into perpetuity." Clinton's executive order ended that "iconic status," she said. Now FGI can only be kept secret after 25 years if it would impair foreign relations or disrupt current activities, she said.

    But FGI is particularly sensitive: Other countries aren't as open as the United States, and releasing information involving another government may hurt diplomatic relations, she noted.

  • How to treat intelligence information, including sources and methods of spying. Before 1996, the "disclosure of intelligence sources and methods was presumed to damage national security," she said. Because it's so sensitive, information in this category may remain classified after 25 years if its release still poses a threat to national security.

    The reexamination of declassifying spying information requires "painstaking review," Mazer said. "Secrecy is integral to what we ask intelligence agencies to do. ... Confidentiality (may be essential) to protecting U.S. personnel and foreign institutions." On the other hand, she said, there's another cost to keeping information close to the vest: "Increasing public suspicion, distrust and cynicism."


    Remarks on security classification appeals

    Speech by Roslyn A. Mazer, chair of classification-appeals panel, at 1999 National FOI Day. 04.01.99

    Bush issues new executive order on declassifying documents

    Open-government advocates have mixed reactions to order that delays declassification of millions of records, makes it easier to reclassify some papers. 04.01.03

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