Executive Order Dispute Highlights Problems With U.S. Government Secrecy Policy

Executive Order Dispute Highlights Problems With U.S. Government Secrecy Policy

The revelation that the Office of Vice President Richard Cheney has refused to comply with an executive order requiring it to file an annual report on how it handles classified national security information has drawn attention to several complex issues in the area of government secrecy.

Executive Order 12958
-- first signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and reissued by President George W. Bush in 2003 -- seeks to establish a uniform, government-wide system for safeguarding classified information. Under the order, classification can only be mandated by officials and individuals who can clearly justify their action.

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives and Records Administration is responsible for ensuring that the executive branch protects classified information. ISOO conducts yearly audits of the federal government's classification process, including the amount of classified material in each agency's possession, its procedures for safeguarding that information, and financial costs associated with these procedures.

Starting in 2003, Cheney's office has declined to respond to ISOO's inquiries into how it manages classified information. Cheney's staff claims that the vice president should be exempt from the executive order on the grounds that the vice president's office is not solely an executive branch agency. Under the U.S. Constitution, the vice president also serves as president of the Senate, giving him certain legislative functions such as casting votes to break ties. When the ISOO persisted in its investigation, Cheney's staff tried to abolish the office.

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