Declassifying government information: a good progress report

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

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

  • 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.”