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Using Search Tools to Declassify Presidential Docs -- Starting With Reagan's

President Ronald Reagan poses for photographers in the Oval Office.

President Ronald Reagan poses for photographers in the Oval Office. // Ron Edmonds/AP File Photo

The White House plans to speed up the declassification of presidential records by launching new tools to search and automatically analyze documents for possible release, according to the Obama administration’s second round of commitments to the international Open Government Partnership published on Friday.

The CIA and the National Archives and Records Administration will pilot the tools on the Reagan administration’s classified email system, the White House said.

The Archives will also use a new referral and tracking system to automatically notify relevant agencies when records are ready for declassification review and to track whether agencies are meeting declassification deadlines, the plan said.

The plan also renews commitments to be more transparent about the government’s foreign intelligence collection, as President Obama proposed in August following revelations from leaker Edward Snowden about controversial foreign spying programs undertaken by the National Security Agency.

In total, the plan lists 23 new or expanded open government commitments, including plans to channel all Freedom of Information Act requests through a single online portal and to develop common FOIA regulations and practices across federal agencies so journalists, researchers and citizens aren’t faced with a mishmash of different requirements and contacts.

The Center for Effective Government, a transparency organization, called the commitments “bold and ambitious” in a statement on Friday.

 “We are impressed by the scope and detail of the plan, as well as the administration's commitment to continue to engage and refine those commitments for which detailed goals are not yet available,” Sean Moulton, the group’s director of open government policy, said.

Transparency advocates have criticized the Obama administration for not following through on bold claims about its commitment to transparency.

The administration made 26 first-round commitments to the OGP, a voluntary group of 60 nations committed to being more transparent, and claimed to have completed 24 of them in a March report. An independent assessment found the White House had only completed half of those commitments and made only nominal progress on many of them.

Friday’s action plan also included commitments to:

  • Combine data from government systems that track imports and exports into a “single window” to aid researchers and watchdogs
  • Make federal regulations easier to find and read online, perhaps by bringing more agencies into an open source pilot developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  • Relaunch the government data trove Data.gov to include an index of all federal data sets in a single catalog.
  • Explore using computer-to-computer tools that allow citizens to comment on federal regulations through non-government websites.
  • Improve the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s timely release of machine readable data during natural disasters.
  • Publish additional federal contracting data and make more spending data available in machine readable formats
  • Enhance ForeignAssistance.gov, a transparency site for foreign aid spending, and Performance.gov, a site that measures government’s progress toward key goals. 

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