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Project on Government Oversight

Public Comment on Declassification on OSTP Blog

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July 19, 2009

POGO made public comments on the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President Blog. The comments were in regards to this invitation:

Welcome to the Declassification Policy Forum hosted by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB).

The PIDB is an advisory committee established by Congress in order to promote the fullest possible public access to a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of significant U.S. national security decisions and activities. We are very interested in receiving your comments on how classified national security information policy should be revised.

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 at 4:30 pm by Public Interest Declassification Forum

The Declassification Policy Forum has been an unprecedented opportunity for the public to provide recommendations for revisions to Executive Order 12958, as amended, "Classified National Security Information."  We welcome your comments on all four topics (Declassification Policy, Creating a National Declassification Center, Classification Policy, and Technology Challenges and Opportunities) until Sunday, July 19, 2009.  The Public Interest Declassification Board will use your comments in formulating their recommendations to the National Security Advisor the week of July 20, 2009.  This letter will be made available on the Declassification Policy Forum.    

POGO's comments were as follows:

The executive branch frequently over-classifies and uses pseudo-classifications, such as Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) and Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI), to withhold information from the public. The reason is not the legitimate need for secrecy, but the concealment of embarrassing information, including mistakes. The executive branch should protect only legitimate national security and privacy concerns, and it should penalize agencies that violate these standards.

The federal government’s official response should reflect a presumption of disclosure which allows the public full transparency and openness. Such a dramatic shift calls for leadership at every level of government so every civil servant, private contractor, and consultant adopts this in all its transactions. Despite the efforts of more than one Presidential order to implement such a change, the over-classification of government documents remains a serious obstacle to an open society. The President recently called for such a change. The Project On Government Oversight supports that directive and will work to see it implemented.

Members of the public must frequently file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to learn about the performance and actions of their government. As a matter of practice, the federal government should place online all new government-generated or government-collected information that is not exempt from FOIA. Furthermore, instead of withholding an entire document that contains information that cannot be released, the government should release the document with that information redacted. The federal government should automatically post all this releasable information at publicly available agency websites.

All information released through FOIA should promptly be made available online. This will decrease the need for duplicate FOIA requests that now contribute to the large FOIA request backlogs. Furthermore, agency budgets must allow for these changes, accounting for increased staff to handle posting new agency information, as well as providing adequate resources to support chronically under-funded FOIA offices.

Marthena Cowart, Director of Communications, Project On Government Oversight 

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