WASHINGTON — 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 changes that could sharply curb the number of government records hidden from the public.
In an executive order the president is likely to sign before year's end, Obama will create a National Declassification Center to clear 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 separate 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.
The anticipated timing of Obama's order was disclosed by a government official familiar with the planning who requested anonymity in order to discuss the order before its release. A draft of the order leaked last summer.
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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 . A Soviet spy ring in the Navy led by John Walker headlined 1985, which became known as "The Year of the Spy."
On his first day in office, Obama instructed federal agencies to be more responsive to requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act and he overturned an order by President George W. Bush that would have enabled former presidents and vice presidents to block release of sensitive records of their time in the White House.
William J. Bosanko, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, says the classification policies in place under executive orders signed by Bush and President Clinton have protected national security and enabled increased declassification.
But Obama's review is necessary to enhance security and increase declassification "to a level that our open society expects and deserves," Bosanko said.
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."
But intelligence agencies have resisted surrendering their authority over secrets to an interagency group.