President Obama plans to deal with a Dec. 31 deadline that automatically would declassify secrets in more than 400 million pages of Cold War-era documents by ordering governmentwide changes that could sharply curb the number of new and old government records hidden from the public.
In an executive order that the president is likely to sign before year's end, Mr. Obama will create a National Declassification Center to clear up the backlog of Cold War documents. But the order also will give everyone more time to process the 400 million pages, rather than flinging them open at year's end without a second glance.
The order aimed at eliminating unnecessary secrecy also is expected to direct all agencies to revise their classification guides -- the more than 2,000 manuals used by federal agencies to determine what information should be classified and what no longer needs that protection. The manuals form the foundation of the government's classification system.
Two of every three such guides haven't been updated within the past five years, according to the 2008 annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the government's security classification.
The still-classified Cold War records would provide a wealth of data on U.S.-Soviet relations, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, diplomacy and espionage.
It took 19 years and a lawsuit for the National Security Archive, a private group that obtains and analyzes once-secret government records, to get documents on the crisis in the late 1950s when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over control of West Berlin. For nearly two decades, the contested documents were shuttled among various offices in the Defense Department, then on to the State Department and an unnamed intelligence agency, each conducting a separate declassification review, before the government finally release some of them.
Mr. Obama's executive order will follow up on his Inauguration Day initiatives on open government. On his first day in office, Mr. Obama instructed federal agencies to be more responsive to requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act and overturned an order by President George W. Bush that would have enabled former presidents and vice presidents to block the release of sensitive records of their time in the White House.
Mr. Obama's executive order "is an experiment, but it just might work," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "By changing the rules about what gets classified, this could lead to a dramatic reduction in secrecy throughout the government." Mr. Aftergood obtained a leaked copy of an early draft of the executive order last summer.
The problem is not much closer to being solved than it was in the 1990s. Under the terms of Mr. Bush's extension, sensitive information in hundreds of millions of pages of historical documents will be declassified automatically on Dec. 31 unless Mr. Obama acts.
"If the agencies haven't found the sensitive old documents after nine years, that's some indication those records don't deserve being secret anymore," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.