Foreign Policy Blogs

Government secrecy and national security

Last week President Obama issued an executive order to systematize and accelerate the declassification of national security documents. National security is always the arch nemesis of transparency, the ace in the sleeve of politicians who aren’t quite comfortable with whatever pledges of openness they have made. Obama’s decision is therefore admirable not only for the boost to transparency, but for its strike at the heart of governmental secrecy. The relevant documents date from the Cold War era, and could be particularly illuminating of U.S.-Soviet relations.

Obama chose to issue the order in absentia, while on holiday vacation, and during a week when hardly anyone is paying attention to the news. The New York Times covered the story on page 19, and the Wall Street Journal appears to have ignored it altogether. Conveniently, the few people who were tuning in were distracted by nonstop coverage of the Christmas Day Bomber. So ironically, it looks as if the administration is attempting a cover-up of its transparency measures.

The fact that Obama is improving government openness while attracting the least possible attention is consistent with his behavior on all sensitive subjects. The executive order fulfills a campaign promise, but may now appear politically hazardous as the president is attacked for jeopardizing national security from Guantanamo to Afghanistan to the airports. Rather than come down firmly on either the side of transparency or of national security, he is straddling the two, perhaps waiting to see where the chips will ultimately fall.

Advocates are cautiously optimistic that the executive order will increase not just the volume of declassified documents but also the culture of government openness in Washington. While the administration might not be ready to announce its decision with fanfare, a covert declaration is better than none at all.