WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday delayed the release of millions of classified government documents, signing an order to extend by more than three years a review process intended to protect national security.
Under a 1995 executive order signed by President Clinton, all secret documents 25 years old or older were to be automatically released starting April 17. A senior administration official said Bush amended that order to extend the review process until Dec. 31, 2006.
"It's important to understand that documents will continue to be released," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It will just give agencies more time to complete their reviews."
Bush's action had raised concerns among scholars and researchers; they feared it would roll back reforms intended to make the declassification process easier and less arbitrary.
In response to such concerns, the administration did remove one clause stating that when there is "substantial doubt" over whether a document should be declassified, it should be kept secret. The Clinton policy had said that in those circumstances, the document should be released.
"This says nothing about 'substantial doubt.' It was the judgment
The official said that under the 1995 policy, more than 1 billion secret documents have been declassified, compared with 200 million in the previous 15 years.
The order -- released after business hours Tuesday -- does expand the government's ability to keep certain documents classified. For instance, it says information obtained from a foreign government should be presumed to damage national security and should not be declassified. It also gives the head of the CIA the right to veto a decision by an interagency appeals committee to release a document.
The Bush order "does not eliminate all constraints on official secrecy, as some had feared, but neither does it move beyond the parameters of the Cold War secrecy system into a truly 21st century information policy," the Federation of American Scientists said in a statement.
Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow with the independent National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified documents, said it was important that the Bush policy retains the principle of automatic declassification. The other changes are probably of marginal importance, depending on how they are implemented.
"You've always had cases where you've had unreasonable secrecy no matter what the order says," Richelson said. "It's clear the Bush administration is more inclined to secrecy than the Clinton administration."
The senior administration official dismissed suggestions that the Bush team may be seeking to keep certain documents classified because they relate to current national security issues or to the first Bush administration. The most recent documents that could be released under the 25-year rule would date to the Carter administration.
The biggest problem with the Bush policy is that it retains loopholes allowing for arbitrary decisions, critics said.
"The [policy] does not touch the roots of dysfunction in the classification system, which allow agencies to make extravagantly false classification claims," the Federation of American Scientists statement said. "Strengthening and expanding the [interagency] review process, rather than curtailing it, might have been one way to improve the correction of classification errors and abuses."