On this day in 1945, President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9568, permitting the release of scientific information from previously top-secret World War II documents. He hoped the information might help stimulate America’s developing industries in the post-World War II economy.
The order provided for the release of scientific and technical data, including highly sensitive information from World War II weapons programs, but only after it had been reviewed first by the War and Navy Departments and the director of War Mobilization and Reconversion. The order laid out specific types of classifications of information: secret, confidential and restricted. It also allowed for documents to be classified with some “other comparable designation [of secrecy level] or otherwise withheld from the public for purposes of the national military security.”
The new classification system was designed to protect sensitive documents that needed to remain secret in the interest of national security while at the same time using some information to help transition wartime industries to peacetime and create a robust post-war economy. Scientific research during World War II had produced new medicines, communications technology and materials that Truman believed could benefit consumers. Out of Executive Order 9568 came the establishment of the federal Publication Board, which reviewed all federally generated scientific and technical reports for national security issues. If documents were deemed safe to release, the Publication Board would publish the information, making it available to the private sector.
In 1950, the Publication Board came under the auspices of the Department of Commerce. Twenty years later, it was renamed the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). President Reagan tried to privatize the NTIS in 1988, but was prevented from doing so by Congress, which passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Authorization Act, keeping the NTIS within the Department of Commerce and under Congressional oversight.
Truman’s legislation responded to a growing concern among many Americans that citizens had a “right to know” what their government was doing. Executive Order 9568 was a stepping stone to future transparency-oriented legislation including the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, which granted Americans the right to petition the government for the release of information from federal agencies.