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FRINFORMSUM: 7/12/2011

July 13, 2011

Press Secretary Jay Carney

The political tension created by the debt ceiling negotiations could victimize the U.S. economy, but it appears to have already damaged President Obama’s pledge of increased transparency at the White House. Press Secretary Jay Carney said “We’re so serious about getting a deal done, as opposed to engaging in political theater […] that we are going to have meetings that I’m not going to tell you about.” Even though Secretary Carney backtracked on his statement, President Obama’s “back-channel” meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner was not on the president’s public schedule. The last time high-profile legislation such as this was under consideration (2010 Affordable Care Act), President Obama remarked that it was a “mistake” to let short-term considerations make him abandon campaign promises of transparency in legislative negotiations.

In November 2010, the Obama Administration produced an executive order that intended to curtail the use of improvised access controls used by federal agency for unclassified information. Agencies are only allowed to authorize restrictions based on law, regulation or government-wide policy. The Department of Defense proposed a new rule that would require safeguards for all documents with designations banned under the executive order. More broadly, the DoD rule states that any unclassified information not specifically marked for public release falls under the new safeguards. The new DoD rules, though only a proposal, brazenly undermine the presumption of openness prescribed by the executive order and seek to establish secrecy as the default approach to unclassified information.

The National Archive and Records Administration published a proposal for a new rule for the procedures for declassifying records containing national security information. Under the Clinton Administration’s executive order 12958, documents that were not specifically exempted had to be declassified whether or not they had been reviewed. The new rules would allow non-exempt documents to remain classified for up to 35 years if they belonged to an “integral file block” with records that were “only” 25 years old. Additionally, if records older than 25 years are found and haven’t been reviewed, they could be provisionally classified for up to three additional years to allow for a review. The new rule does not mention the “fifty year rule” from the executive order – documents exempted from the automatic 25 year declassification have to be declassified in 50 years (excepting obvious material like human sources or nuclear warhead designs).

In the case of alleged CIA classified information leaker Jeffrey Sterling, New York Times reporter James Risen, who was subpoenaed in order to compel him to testify, presented a motion to the court which he hopes would end the subpoena. Mr. Risen argued that the court should consider the value of the leaked information to the public interest and the damage his testifying would cause to the public interest. The government responded by stating that “explicitly recognizing ‘good leaks’ of classified information […] would effectively destroy the system through which the country protects that information.”

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