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Obama Orders Review of Top Secret Classification

WASHINGTON -- Expanding his drive to open government, President Barack Obama is ordering two studies of whether the government is classifying too much information and using too many different ways to keep it from public view.

He wants the answers in just 90 days, and it's no secret which way he's leaning.

In a memo Wednesday, Obama ordered national security adviser James L. Jones to consult relevant agencies and recommend revisions in the existing presidential order on national security classification that lays out the rules under which agencies can stamp documents "confidential," "secret" or "top secret."

That same memo also ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to set up a governmentwide task force on standardizing so-called controlled but unclassified information. This is data with stamps like "for official use only" or "limited official distribution" that are not authorized by the executive order but have grown up over the years to keep sensitive data from the public even if it doesn't meet standards for national security classification.

Obama noted that there are now 107 different stamps for such data, also known as "sensitive but unclassified" information, and 130 different procedures for applying those stamps. He said a 2008 order by former President George W. Bush had "a salutary effect" in establishing a framework to begin standardizing these designations for sensitive terrorism-related data, but he asked the task force to recommend whether that work should be expanded to cover all sensitive but unclassified information governmentwide.

The tone of the memo suggested Obama thought a governmentwide effort would be a good idea.

Obama also directed this group to study the procedures for handling sensitive but unclassified data to be sure that "information is not restricted unless there is a compelling need."

While Obama didn't order any changes in government secrecy Wednesday, his memo contained language and set agendas for the two studies that hinted strongly at moves he might take. It was greeted with cheers from open government advocates who have long argued that government classifies too much information.

Echoing language he used earlier to open more government information to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, Obama said, "A democratic government must be as transparent as possible and must not withhold information for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment."

Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private group that gathers and publishes declassified government documents and lobbies for more open government, applauded the memo.

"Sure, we could have hoped for the president to make decisions today," Blanton said, "but this is warp speed in bureaucratic terms." He noted that former President Bill Clinton took three years to revise the executive order on classification.

Blanton said the tasks assigned to the two studies and language in the memo make clear "the president's gut is in the right place. He's opting for transparency. This is about as clear a signal as you can get in a bureaucratic environment."

Among the tasks Obama set for Jones' study was to recommend whether to set up a National Declassification Center where officials from various agencies could work together on declassification of documents. Currently, there is a backlog of 51 million pages, scheduled for automatic declassification on Dec. 31, that have not been completely reviewed for release because the material had to be referred to as many as 10 different agencies for evaluation.

Obama also asked Jones to recommend whether to restore Clinton's "presumption against classification," that would bar classifying documents when there is significant doubt about the need for it. Bush eliminated that presumption.

And Obama asked Jones to recommend changes to increase sharing of classified information among appropriate agencies and to prohibit reclassification of material already released to the public properly. Blanton's group found that between 1999 and 2006, more than 150,000 publicly available pages had been reclassified governmentwide.