Monday, January 1, 2007

Mark this day

"Bay Of Pigs. Bay Of Pigs. Where are the B's?"

Screen grab credit:

Mark this day in the calendar, folks. It's one of the few times you'll ever see me write this: the Bush Administration did something right. No, it's not something small or inconsequential, like not getting lost on a bike ride or remembering the name of the prime minister of India, this is something big and very important to a democracy. What's more, they actually did it even though it was something that Bill Clinton thought of. The act in question is following the dictates of an executive order that Bill Clinton signed in 1995. According to Scott Shane of the International Herald Tribune:

At midnight on Dec. 31, hundreds of millions of pages of secret documents will be instantly declassified, including many FBI cold war files on investigations of people suspected of being Communist sympathizers. After years of extensions sought by federal agencies behaving like college students facing a term paper, the end of 2006 means the government's first automatic declassification of records.

Secret documents 25 years old or older will lose their classified status without so much as the stroke of a pen, unless agencies have sought exemptions on the ground that the material remains secret.

U.S. to declassify secrets aged 25 and older

Here's a little background. Up until now, documents would only be declassified if the declassification was specifically requested by U.S. citizens and granted by the government, or if the agency responsible for the documents decided to do a "housecleaning" by reviewing old classified documents to see if they should remain secret. Now, old secret documents will be declassified automatically unless the agency responsible requests that they not be. Essentially, we've gone from the documents being declassified by exception to their remaining classified by exception. As the IHT quote indicates, this will change the status of hundreds of millions of documents.

The IHT also appears to be accurate in saying the Bush Administration have not stood in the way of this change. The executive order the article is referring to is EO 12958, which President Clinton signed in April, 1995. Among other things, it contained this directive:

Sec. 3.4. Automatic Declassification. (a) Subject to paragraph (b), below, within 5 years from the date of this order, all classified information contained in records that (1) are more than 25 years old, and (2) have been determined to have permanent historical value under title 44, United States Code, shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed. Subsequently, all classified information in such records shall be automatically declassified no longer than 25 years from the date of its original classification, except as provided in paragraph (b), below. [3]

Executive Order 12958

President Bush later amended this executive order with EO 13292, which was changed mainly to give the Vice President the power to classify information. The section on automatic declassification was left essentially unchanged:

Sec. 3.3. Automatic Declassification. (a) Subject to paragraphs (b)-(e) of this section, on December 31, 2006, all classified records that (1) are more than 25 years old and (2) have been determined to have permanent historical value under title 44, United States Code, shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed. Subsequently, all classified records shall be automatically declassified on December 31 of the year that is 25 years from the date of its original classification, except as provided in paragraphs (b)-(e) of this section.

Executive Order 13292

Near as I can tell, the only change was to set a different date for the time when this process would start. Considering the way in which the Bush Administration deals with secrecy, this is an astonishing development. The change in the paragraphs cited is what I'd call wordsmithing; the paragraphs cited are essentially unchanged.

There is an implementation directive that tries to clarify procedures that will be used to declassify these documents. A brief glance at it reveals no hidden gotchas. It really looks like this is going to happen.

So, what does all this mean? The IHT article sums it up nicely:

Historians say the deadline, created in the Clinton administration but enforced, to the surprise of some scholars, by the secrecy-prone Bush administration, has had huge effects on public access, despite the large numbers of intelligence documents that have been exempted.

And every year from now on, millions of additional documents will be automatically declassified as they reach the 25-year limit, reversing the traditional practice of releasing just what scholars request.

That's "millions of documents", as in the equivalent of thousands of encyclopedias. Needless to say, much of it will be considerably less informative, but there are more than a few things buried in there that historians would like to know, and that we, as citizens of this country, ought to know.

The IHT article mentions that some documents about the Gulf of Tonkin incident will be declassified. For those who don't know what that is, let's just say that the Gulf of Tonkin was to Vietnam what weapons of mass destruction were to Iraq - in short, the lie that was used as the excuse for the war. What will those documents tell us about what happened that night? Here's what the Wikipedia entry has to say:

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was an alleged pair of attacks (the second of which did not occur) by naval forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam against two American destroyers, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy. The attacks occurred on 2 and 4 August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin. Later research, including a report released in 2005 by the National Security Agency, indicated that the second attack did not occur, but also attempted to dispel the long-standing assumption that members of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson had knowingly lied about the nature of the incident.

Wikipedia entry "Gulf of Tonkin Incident"

An American President may have lied to get us into a war, and then classified the radar logs and other supporting documents to cover up his crime. Or, he may not have done it. The newly declassified documents may tell us, one way or the other. This has implications beyond history. Suppose President Bush was considering doing the same thing. Knowing that someday his legacy might be sullied by such a revelation might make him more reluctant to do it.

It seems possible that there will be documents about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Yom Kippur War. All these things, and many other incidents of the Cold War, occurred more than twenty-five years ago.

There's another benefit to this declassification that even the most ardent unitary executive proponent would like. It will get a whole bunch of classified documents out of the system. Each one must, by law, be tracked and accounted for. If one goes missing, no matter how useless or uninteresting its contents may be to our current adversaries, an investigation must be conducted to find out what happened and who might be to blame. Declassifying these documents relieves the government of a large expense.

So, we saved money and made our society a little more open. On the whole, a very good day. Here's something else you won't read very often in this column:

Good job, Mr. President.


Mary said...

Hey Cujo - very very good stuff!

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, Mary. All those discussions at FDL made this a lot easier.

shoephone said...

Cujo got his own blog!

Is it possible that the Bushies are becoming so overwhelmed by the abundance of "information" in their backlogs, they believe that releasing things from thirty years ago will distract us from the horrors they've inflicted over the past six years?

Funny thing - despite all their criminal piling on, a lot of us seem to be getting more focused and less distracted than they'd hoped. An ass-whooping at the polls will often have that effect.

Great job, Cujo. Hope you are surviving this wet and windy winter we are having. I'm looking forward to lots of "volunteers" springing up in my garden, due to all the seeds flying around.


Cujo359 said...

Hey, shoephone, yes I'm surviving OK. Don't get out much thanks to the rain, but other than that things are good.

I don't know how to explain what's going on, really, other than that maybe the Bush Administration really doesn't care about history, and they've generated enough secret materials of their own that they have to make room in the safes.

Of course, I could be wrong ...

op99 said...

This is kind of unbelievable, isn't it? There must be a catch, lol. Five more years until the Iran Contra era stuff "ripens." Although I imagine they'll be able to keep that buried under a national security exception.

Another possibility is that Bushco realizes that a Democratic president will be able to change the system to a much shorter, more liberal, and embarassing declassification schedule soon. So if they institutionalize this system now, they provide the equivalent of a "Friday document dump," and hope the needle-in-a-haystack effect keeps most things from coming to light.

It would be great if the documents were required to be put online, where citizen journalists (like you!) can pore over them.

Oh, I see you've eschewed auto moderation - good move.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, op99.

Yes, it was a pain. I only was using the automoderation thing because I wasn't sure how many adbots I'd have to deal with. They seem to be not much of a problem yet.

I hadn't considered Iran-Contra, but it is coming up. Hopefully, Bush and the next president won't change this procedure. I think it's a great idea and at least a decade overdue. But it took this long for the bureaucracy to get used to the idea, and that's why it didn't happen before Clinton left office.

One thing I didn't mention, because I didn't want to find a good source and it's a whole other topic, is that the rate that classified material is produced has substantially increased for a number of reasons in the last decade, including the increased use of computers in classified environments. For that reason, I think it's not too likely that other presidents will change this policy any time soon. They really don't want to have to build more warehouses.

op99 said...

Cujo, does blogger have spam filters? The small blog I used to write on (Wordpress) caught most of it, and what did get through seemed to show up days, weeks, or months after threads had died. Can you close threads after a while on blogger?

Although I personally have no use for p*nis enlargers, online g*mbling, and C*alis, I'm sure there must be many people who might find such imformation a valuable public service. *g*

Cujo359 said...

It appears they have some form of filter, and I set the blog up to use that "type the secret word" thing to try to discourage the adbots. We'll see.

Anyway, there is no way to shut off comments for individual articles besides deleting the article, near as I can tell.

Hey, what do I expect for free?

JWR said...

Hey, Cujo - What Mary said!

I'll probably not comment here any more than I ever did at FDL, but I did want to let you know I've always appreciated your take on things.

Gotcha bookmarked.

PS. Slobber & Spittle? Heh. Not really your style, as I recall.

Kevin Hayden said...

Gulf of Tonkin? Go read the bio of Tom over at the blog "That's Another Fine Mess".

Sometimes the truth can be had w/o waiting for government docs, especially if one seriously studies who was aboard the ships in question, and tracks them down.

Anne said...

I'm of two minds on this one. On the one hand, I am not inclined to believe the Bush administration intended to allow this to happen, and it would not surprise me to see one of the dependable Bush lawyers weigh in with some convoluted opinion that Bush does not have to implement the directive. I mean, these are the people who have gone all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent us knowing which energy execs Cheney met with, for crying out loud.

On the other hand, it could be that Bush believes that it will distract us from what he is up to, and that when all is said and done, maybe in comparison, he won't look all that terrible. I'm sure the media will delve into these records with a zeal they should have had for information in the run-up to the Iraq war, but that's another whole subject.

I guess we'll know soon enough.

Mary said...

Cujo -I'd have to dig, but isn't there something that allows presidents to put longer "holds" on info? So Iran/Contra may not be coming out after all?

I also know that they have been going and classifying info that is in the public domain already, so I bet they have a list of things that they will be immediately re-classifying or that they have possibly even reclassified prior to the release date, to restart the clock.

Only because I'm not a trusting sort these days. *g*

The handling of the Gulf of Tonkin matter should get lots of discussion, but it doesn't. The theme that no one at the time was deliberately lying ---- hard to buy when they classify and hide the info that reveals the second attack never happened. Why not put it out there and discuss it if you weren't lying?

Even though I already said it once, good stuff.

Cujo359 said...

Hi Mary,

There is at least one obvious route to keeping things classified, which is that the agency responsible for the information requests that it be kept classified. The way I read the EO, the President can overrule the agency, but he can also choose to not overrule them. I'll have to check that implementation memo to see how that's supposed to work.

I don't understand the idea of classifying something after it's been public. In the information age, it's nearly impossible to track down all the copies of something. If the information was already in electronic form, the cat's out of the bag. Not that that will stop folks from trying, I suppose.

op99 said...

I don't understand the idea of classifying something after it's been public. In the information age, it's nearly impossible to track down all the copies of something. If the information was already in electronic form, the cat's out of the bag. Not that that will stop folks from trying, I suppose.

But if it's reclassified, then anyone wanting to disseminate the information would have to think twice - would they really want to swing that out-of-the-bag cat around by the tail and risk prosecution? The Bush administration's systematic dismantling of constitutional rights must have put the fear of God into a good percentage of would-be whistle blowers and gadflies.

They don't really need to bury the information, they just need to keep it off the commercial media. And maybe their concentration of media ownership project is complete enough that they don't fear anything from that quarter.