The President Signs H.R. 553, The Reducing Over-Classification Act

Today, the President signed into law bipartisan legislation to decrease over-classification and promote information sharing across the federal government and with state, local, tribal, and private sector entities.

As the President has highlighted previously, protecting national security information and demonstrating our commitment to open government through the proper application of classification standards are equally important and compatible priorities.  Enlisting the power of our democratic values strengthens our ability to counter terrorism, and is critical to keeping America secure and the American people informed.

President Barack Obama signs the Reducing Over Classification Bill

President Barack Obama signs the Reducing Over Classification Bill in the Oval Office. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., stands behind the President. October 7, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The President was joined in the Oval Office by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jane Harman, Chair of the Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The 9/11 Commission concluded that over-classification and inadequate information sharing contributed to the government’s failure to prevent the attacks of 9/11.  As Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste testified (pdf) before Congress in 2005:

The Commission found, however, that the failure to share information was the single most important reason why the United States government failed to detect and disrupt the 9/11 plot. … Information has to flow more freely.  Much more information needs to be declassified.  A great deal of information should never be classified at all.

The Reducing Over-Classification Act (H.R. 553) (pdf) takes concrete action to implement these lessons.  It does this by establishing procedures to promote information sharing with state, local, tribal, and private sector entities, and by providing training and incentives to promote accurate classification of information by federal employees. 

Specifically, the Act requires the Department of Homeland Security to designate a Classified Information Advisory Officer to disseminate educational materials and administer training programs to assist state, local, tribal, and private sector entities; it directs the Director of National Intelligence to establish guidance to standardize formats for intelligence products; and it institutes annual training for employees with original classification authority.  The legislation also directs federal Inspectors General to assess the effectiveness of agency classification policies.

Enacting this legislation is the latest of many steps in the President’s aggressive campaign to reduce unwarranted secrecy; to improve information sharing and analysis across the federal government; and to build the most open administration in history.  For example:

  • On December 29, 2009, the President issued Executive Order 13526 to significantly improve the system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information, including the establishment of the National Declassification Center to conduct a unified and efficient declassification review of historically important older records.  The President also issued a memo to the heads of federal agencies highlighting the importance of implementing these changes promptly and effectively.
  • On June 25, 2010, the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration issued a final implementing directive (pdf) pursuant to Executive Order 13526, to further enhance the effectiveness of this system.
  • On August 18, 2010, the President issued an additional directive, Executive Order 13549, which establishes for the first time a Classified National Security Information Program that enhances national security by facilitating the sharing and safeguarding of classified national security information with first responders and other officials in state, local, tribal, and private sector entities.

When it passed H.R. 553, Congress recognized the Administration’s significant progress on these issues.  As the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee stated in its report (pdf) on this legislation, H.R. 553 is intended to complement Executive Order 13526, and “both the Order and the Act will promote the goals of transparency, information sharing, and security.”

Ben Rhodes is Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications

Related Topics: Homeland Security, California
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