Evaluating Cheney's Claim Of Unilateral Authority to Declassify Information
By Lee Russ
Saturday, February 18, 2006 at 07:47 AM
Now that Patrick Fitzgerald has let it be known that Libby claims his superiors authorized him to leak classified info, several folks over there on the right (way over there) have been floating the idea that Cheney has authority to unilaterally and instantly declassify information. The implication is that Cheney could hand out whatever classified info he wanted to, because as soon as he hands it out, its declassified.
A piece over at The Washington Note got me thinking about that claim, so I took a read through the Executive order which Bushites cite as giving Cheney automatic authority to unilaterally declassify info, Executive Order 13292, from March 25, 2003
++Parts 1 and 2 deal with how info gets a classified category (1 deals with ORIGINAL CLASSIFICATION, 2 with Derivative Classification).
++Part 4 deals with access to, and distribution of, information that is classified.
++Part 5 deals with IMPLEMENTATION AND REVIEW.
++Part 6 provides definitions for terms used in the other parts, and other generalities like effective dates and effects on other Orders and laws.
Only Part 3 deals with declassifying info once it has been categorized as classified. I read it and, as someone with legal training, I have to say it does not appear to give the vice president anything like unilateral declassification authority. Unless I missed something, for the White House to make that claim, it will have to employ the same kind of tortured analysis it uses to claim that the Joint Resolution authorizing military force against Iraq includes the authority to conduct domestic spying.
The exec order sets up a system for automatic declassification for old information, and, under section 3.5, a system of mandatory declassification review for other records. While "Information originated by... the incumbent Vice President" and "the incumbent Vice President's Staff" is specifically exempted from the automatic declassification review process, the order is absolutely silent on how the exempted info can be declassified.
So you get two very good questions about the claims that Cheney has unilateral declassification authority:
(a) Did the info leaked by Libby "originate" with the President or Vice President? If not--if it originated with a fed agency, for example--then it should only be declassified through the mandatory declassification review process. Since the info we're talking about is from the National Intelligence Estimate, it seems unlikely that this information would "originate" with the Vice President or the President; it originates with the various security agencies.
(b) If the info is exempt from mandatory declassification review because it did originate with the President or Vice President, how can it be declassified given that the exec order does not specify how? On this one, I submit that it makes absolutely no sense for the Vice President to have unilateral power to declassify "de facto" by simply disclosing the info. That would set up a system where the Vice President's decision to declassify is unknown to anyone else, even the President, and certainly unknown to any other federal agencies which might be aware of reasons not to declassify specific info. That is not only nonsensical, but contrary to the obvious concern exhibited in the exec order that declassification of info that be done carefully, with opportunity for people who understand the implications to voice objections and concerns.
Part 3 is reproduced below, in full, so you can make your own assessment.
PART 3--DECLASSIFICATION AND DOWNGRADING
Sec. 3.1. Authority for Declassification. (a) Information shall be declassified as soon as it no longer meets the standards for classification under this order.
(b) It is presumed that information that continues to meet the classification requirements under this order requires continued protection. In some exceptional cases, however, the need to protect such information may be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the information, and in these cases the information should be declassified. When such questions arise, they shall be referred to the agency head or the senior agency official. That official will determine, as an exercise of discretion, whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure. This provision does not:
(1) amplify or modify the substantive criteria or procedures for classification; or
(2) create any substantive or procedural rights subject to judicial review.
(c) If the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office determines that information is classified in violation of this order, the Director may require the information to be declassified by the agency that originated the classification. Any such decision by the Director may be appealed to the President through the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. The information shall remain classified pending a prompt decision on the appeal.
(d) The provisions of this section shall also apply to agencies that, under the terms of this order, do not have original classification authority, but had such authority under predecessor orders.
Sec. 3.2. Transferred Records. (a) In the case of classified records transferred in conjunction with a transfer of functions, and not merely for storage purposes, the receiving agency shall be deemed to be the originating agency for purposes of this order.
(b) In the case of classified records that are not officially transferred as described in paragraph (a) of this section, but that originated in an agency that has ceased to exist and for which there is no successor agency, each agency in possession of such records shall be deemed to be the originating agency for purposes of this order. Such records may be declassified or downgraded by the agency in possession after consultation with any other agency that has an interest in the subject matter of the records.
(c) Classified records accessioned into the National Archives and Records Administration (National Archives) as of the effective date of this order shall be declassified or downgraded by the Archivist of the United States (Archivist) in accordance with this order, the directives issued pursuant to this order, agency declassification guides, and any existing procedural agreement between the Archivist and the relevant agency head.
(d) The originating agency shall take all reasonable steps to declassify classified information contained in records determined to have permanent historical value before they are accessioned into the National Archives. However, the Archivist may require that classified records be accessioned into the National Archives when necessary to comply with the provisions of the Federal Records Act. This provision does not apply to records being transferred to the Archivist pursuant to section 2203 of title 44, United States Code, or records for which the National Archives serves as the custodian of the records of an agency or organization that has gone out of existence.
(e) To the extent practicable, agencies shall adopt a system of records management that will facilitate the public release of documents at the time such documents are declassified pursuant to the provisions for automatic declassification in section 3.3 of this order.
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.
(b) An agency head may exempt from automatic declassification under paragraph (a) of this section specific information, the release of which could be expected to:
(1) reveal the identity of a confidential human source, or a human intelligence source, or reveal information about the application of an intelligence source or method;
(2) reveal information that would assist in the development or use of weapons of mass destruction;
(3) reveal information that would impair U.S. cryptologic systems or activities;
(4) reveal information that would impair the application of state of the art technology within a U.S. weapon system;
(5) reveal actual U.S. military war plans that remain in effect;
(6) reveal information, including foreign government information, that would seriously and demonstrably impair relations between the United States and a foreign government, or seriously and demonstrably undermine ongoing diplomatic activities of the United States;
(7) reveal information that would clearly and demonstrably impair the current ability of United States Government officials to protect the President, Vice President, and other protectees for whom protection services, in the interest of the national security, are authorized;
(8) reveal information that would seriously and demonstrably impair current national security emergency preparedness plans or reveal current vulnerabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, or projects relating to the national security; or
(9) violate a statute, treaty, or international agreement.
(c) An agency head shall notify the President through the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs of any specific file series of records for which a review or assessment has determined that the information within that file series almost invariably falls within one or more of the exemption categories listed in paragraph (b) of this section and which the agency proposes to exempt from automatic declassification. The notification shall include:
(1) a description of the file series;
(2) an explanation of why the information within the file series is almost invariably exempt from automatic declassification and why the information must remain classified for a longer period of time; and
(3) except for the identity of a confidential human source or a human intelligence source, as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, a specific date or event for declassification of the information.
The President may direct the agency head not to exempt the file series or to declassify the information within that series at an earlier date than recommended. File series exemptions previously approved by the President shall remain valid without any additional agency action.
(d) At least 180 days before information is automatically declassified under this section, an agency head or senior agency official shall notify the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, serving as Executive Secretary of the Panel, of any specific information beyond that included in a notification to the President under paragraph (c) of this section that the agency proposes to exempt from automatic declassification. The notification shall include:
(1) a description of the information, either by reference to information in specific records or in the form of a declassification guide;
(2) an explanation of why the information is exempt from automatic declassification and must remain classified for a longer period of time; and
(3) except for the identity of a confidential human source or a human intelligence source, as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, a specific date or event for declassification of the information. The Panel may direct the agency not to exempt the information or to declassify it at an earlier date than recommended. The agency head may appeal such a decision to the President through the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. The information will remain classified while such an appeal is pending.
(e) The following provisions shall apply to the onset of automatic declassification:
(1) Classified records within an integral file block, as defined in this order, that are otherwise subject to automatic declassification under this section shall not be automatically declassified until December 31 of the year that is 25 years from the date of the most recent record within the file block.
2) By notification to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, before the records are subject to automatic declassification, an agency head or senior agency official designated under section 5.4 of this order may delay automatic declassification for up to 5 additional years for classified information contained in microforms, motion pictures, audiotapes, videotapes, or comparable media that make a review for possible declassification exemptions more difficult or costly.
(3) By notification to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, before the records are subject to automatic declassification, an agency head or senior agency official designated under section 5.4 of this order may delay automatic declassification for up to 3 years for classified records that have been referred or transferred to that agency by another agency less than 3 years before automatic declassification would otherwise be required.
(4) By notification to the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, an agency head or senior agency official designated under section 5.4 of this order may delay automatic declassification for up to 3 years from the date of discovery of classified records that were inadvertently not reviewed prior to the effective date of automatic declassification.
(f) Information exempted from automatic declassification under this section shall remain subject to the mandatory and systematic declassification review provisions of this order.
(g) The Secretary of State shall determine when the United States should commence negotiations with the appropriate officials of a foreign government or international organization of governments to modify any treaty or international agreement that requires the classification of information contained in records affected by this section for a period longer than 25 years from the date of its creation, unless the treaty or international agreement pertains to information that may otherwise remain classified beyond 25 years under this section.
(h) Records containing information that originated with other agencies or the disclosure of which would affect the interests or activities of other agencies shall be referred for review to those agencies and the information of concern shall be subject to automatic declassification only by those agencies, consistent with the provisions of subparagraphs (e)(3) and (e)(4) of this section.
Sec. 3.4. Systematic Declassification Review. (a) Each agency that has originated classified information under this order or its predecessors shall establish and conduct a program for systematic declassification review. This program shall apply to records of permanent historical value exempted from automatic declassification under section 3.3 of this order. Agencies shall prioritize the systematic review of records based upon the degree of researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification upon review.
(b) The Archivist shall conduct a systematic declassification review program for classified records: (1) accessioned into the National Archives as of the effective date of this order; (2) transferred to the Archivist pursuant to section 2203 of title 44, United States Code; and (3) for which the National Archives serves as the custodian for an agency or organization that has gone out of existence. This program shall apply to pertinent records no later than 25 years from the date of their creation. The Archivist shall establish priorities for the systematic review of these records based upon the degree of researcher interest and the likelihood of declassification upon review. These records shall be reviewed in accordance with the standards of this order, its implementing directives, and declassification guides provided to the Archivist by each agency that originated the records. The Director of the Information Security Oversight Office shall ensure that agencies provide the Archivist with adequate and current declassification guides.
(c) After consultation with affected agencies, the Secretary of Defense may establish special procedures for systematic review for declassification of classified cryptologic information, and the Director of Central Intelligence may establish special procedures for systematic review for declassification of classified information pertaining to intelligence activities (including special activities), or intelligence sources or methods.
Sec. 3.5. Mandatory Declassification Review.
(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, all information classified under this order or predecessor orders shall be subject to a review for declassification by the originating agency if:
(1) the request for a review describes the document or material containing the information with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to locate it with a reasonable amount of effort;
(2) the information is not exempted from search and review under sections 105C, 105D, or 701 of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 403-5c, 403-5e, and 431); and
(3) the information has not been reviewed for declassification within the past 2 years. If the agency has reviewed the information within the past 2 years, or the information is the subject of pending litigation, the agency shall inform the requester of this fact and of the requesters appeal rights.
(b) Information originated by:
(1) the incumbent President or, in the performance of executive duties, the incumbent Vice President;
(2) the incumbent Presidents White House Staff or, in the performance of executive duties, the incumbent Vice Presidents Staff;
(3) committees, commissions, or boards appointed by the incumbent President; or
(4) other entities within the Executive Office of the President that solely advise and assist the incumbent President is exempted from the provisions of paragraph (a) of this section. However, the Archivist shall have the authority to review, downgrade, and declassify papers or records of former Presidents under the control of the Archivist pursuant to sections 2107, 2111, 2111 note, or 2203 of title 44, United States Code. Review procedures developed by the Archivist shall provide for consultation with agencies having primary subject matter interest and shall be consistent with the provisions of applicable laws or lawful agreements that pertain to the respective Presidential papers or records. Agencies with primary subject matter interest shall be notified promptly of the Archivists decision. Any final decision by the Archivist may be appealed by the requester or an agency to the Panel. The information shall remain classified pending a prompt decision on the appeal.
(c) Agencies conducting a mandatory review for declassification shall declassify information that no longer meets the standards for classification under this order. They shall release this information unless withholding is otherwise authorized and warranted under applicable law.
(d) In accordance with directives issued pursuant to this order, agency heads shall develop procedures to process requests for the mandatory review of classified information. These procedures shall apply to information classified under this or predecessor orders. They also shall provide a means for administratively appealing a denial of a mandatory review request, and for notifying the requester of the right to appeal a final agency decision to the Panel.
(e) After consultation with affected agencies, the Secretary of Defense shall develop special procedures for the review of cryptologic information; the Director of Central Intelligence shall develop special procedures for the review of information pertaining to intelligence activities (including special activities), or intelligence sources or methods; and the Archivist shall develop special procedures for the review of information accessioned into the National Archives.
Sec. 3.6. Processing Requests and Reviews. In response to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act of 1974, or the mandatory review provisions of this order, or pursuant to the automatic declassification or systematic review provisions of this order:
(a) An agency may refuse to confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of requested records whenever the fact of their existence or nonexistence is itself classified under this order or its predecessors.
(b) When an agency receives any request for documents in its custody that contain information that was originally classified by another agency, or comes across such documents in the process of the automatic declassification or systematic review provisions of this order, it shall refer copies of any request and the pertinent documents to the originating agency for processing, and may, after consultation with the originating agency, inform any requester of the referral unless such association is itself classified under this order or its predecessors. In cases in which the originating agency determines in writing that a response under paragraph (a) of this section is required, the referring agency shall respond to the requester in accordance with that paragraph.
Sec. 3.7. Declassification Database. (a) The Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in conjunction with those agencies that originate classified information, shall coordinate the linkage and effective utilization of existing agency databases of records that have been declassified and publicly released.
(b) Agency heads shall fully cooperate with the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office in these efforts.