Philippines president revives 1964 order on state secrecy, flouts the Constitution again

May. 24, 2007

MANILA — On 30 March 2007 President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order No. 608 (EO 608), establishing a national security clearance system for government personnel with access to classified matters. Under this system, personnel who have access to classified matters are required to undergo a comprehensive background investigation before he or she is issued an Interim Security Clearance by the head of the department, agency or office concerned. Such interim clearance is subject to review by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), and to final approval by the National Security Adviser/Office of the National Security Director (ONSA/ONSD). The investigatory records of all personnel granted the Interim Security Clearance shall be maintained by each department, agency or office in a Security Investigation Index. These personnel may not disclose, share, publish or use classified matter in any way that violates the clearance, or without proper authority. EO 608 considers any violation of the security clearance a grave offense under the civil service rules, without precluding criminal or civil liability.

By itself EO 608 appears innocuous. However, the deviousness of EO 608 becomes plain when consider Memorandum Circular No. 78 (MC 78), to which it refers. A close look at MC 78 reveals clear incompatibility with the constitutional guarantee of access to information of public concern, and its application will result in the actual violation of the guarantee.

Raising the Dead

MC 78 is a 14 August 1964 issuance, that is, it was issued during the presidency of President Macapagal-Arroyos father. EO 608 establishes the clearance system for access to classified matters, while MC 78 provides the system for determining what will be classified matter. It provides for the authority to classify certain information into four categories: top secret, secret, confidential, and restricted. The availability of classified information is then restricted only to persons properly cleared under EO 608. Thus, classified matter will not be available to the general public, not even to government personnel who are without clearance.

MC 78 was amended by the insertion of a section (Section XII. Communication Security) on 19 July 1968. The next time it was referred to in an executive issuance was through Letter of Instructions No. 1420 (LoI 1420) dated 3 September 1984. LoI 1420 reiterated the prohibition for the disclosure of classified matter to unauthorized persons, the media or the general public; centralized clearance for publication to the Office of the President; enjoined the strict enforcement of MC 78; and reiterated the threat of disciplinary action or criminal prosecution for any violation. No doubt LoI 1420 was a measure to further constrict the flow of information at a time when the challenge to the Marcos dictatorship was gaining momentum.

After the fall of the Marcos government, MC 78 dropped into obscurity in most government agencies, except perhaps in the defense and intelligence establishment, until EO 608 resurrected it. The obscurity of MC 78 was such that President Macapagal-Arroyo and her Executive Secretary, General Eduardo Ermita, wrongly cited in EO 608 its year of issuance as 1978 instead of 1964 .

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