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The Washington Post
May 19, 2001

DOE Puts Declassification Into Reverse

Reviewers Combing Historic Files at
Archives for Data to Reclassify as Secret

By George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Energy Department censors arrived in force at the offices of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project the morning after a tiny news item in the March 28 Washington Post said that records of the late president's National Security Council were about to be made public.

Between 10 and 15 reviewers took a look at the subject-by-subject descriptions of what had been laboriously declassified by staffers at the project, part of the National Archives complex in College Park, and fanned out among the stacks to hunt for nuclear secrets that might be compromised by disclosure.

They found about 14 pages, out of more than 100,000, that they decided had to be kept off-limits. Nixon project staffers were bewildered. What was at issue, they say, was "basic stuff," background papers about nuclear missile strengths that the United States and the Soviet Union had informed each other about in 1972 during negotiations over the SALT I strategic arms limitation treaty. Nixon's national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, disclosed many of the numbers publicly at a May 27, 1972, news conference in a Moscow nightclub, observing wryly that "[s]ince I have given out the Soviet figures, I might as well give out the American figures."

"They reclassified them," said one archives official who asked not to be named. "We had experts from the Department of State and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency who said there would be no sensitivity because we were giving the information to the other side."

DOE officials defend their action even while saying they have no information to tell them whether it was given to the Soviets or not. Rules, they say, are rules.

"Stockpile information is classified," said Kenneth Stein of DOE's Office of Nuclear and National Security Information. "The information is protected under current DOE classification guidelines."

The hurried visit to the Nixon project was part of a congressionally ordered Energy Department review of documents at least 25 years old, earmarked for release to the public under a 1995 executive order signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Congress ordered the double-check in 1998 to protect nuclear weapons information that might be buried in the files. The Clinton declassification order did not apply to nuclear secrets, which are protected by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, and DOE said its preliminary surveys showed that some weapons information had been improperly released and one document had even been posted on the Internet.

Under the program, now in its third year, the Energy Department has trained close to 1,300 declassification officers at government agencies to be on the lookout for restricted data (RD), information concerning the design and development of nuclear weapons and naval nuclear reactors, and formerly restricted data (FRD), dealing with the use of nuclear weapons, such as their location and design.

The most expensive part of the project, costing $6 million to $7 million a year, is centered at the National Archives, where the Energy Department has stationed 45 reviewers, hired by a private contractor, and three federal managers to inspect millions of pages covered by Clinton's declassification order. Twenty other censors travel the country looking for secrets in the records of the presidential libraries and regional warehouses.

"They're all college graduates," said Joseph S. Mahaley, director of Energy's Office of Security Affairs. "Some are nuclear physicists and scientists. I think they're sort of the unsung heroes of this saga."

Some archivists have less flattering descriptions. "They have carte blanche authorization to go into the stacks, and sometimes that's been disruptive to [archives] staff in doing their jobs," said Peter Jeffrey, president of the American Federation of Government Employees unit for archives workers. "There's a general impression among most people here that they spread out and look at files that don't necessarily need to be looked at to justify their presence."

The war in Vietnam is a case in point. The National Archives has more than 18,000 boxes of records about U.S. forces in Southeast Asia, stretching from 1950 to 1975, and Energy Department officials are looking at each one, even though no nuclear weapons were used in the conflict. The boxes are stuffed with 15 million pages covering 1,500 topics. Energy officials say they've checked out 1,100 and have just 400 to go. Among the papers awaiting review are 31 boxes of applications to marry Vietnamese women.

Archives officials had proposed designating the entire Vietnam record group as "highly unlikely to contain RD/FRD" information, a step that would have freed it from further scrutiny, but assistant archivist Michael J. Kurtz said the Energy Department rejected the idea. He said he couldn't quarrel with the decision because the review teams have found some information they set aside as RD/FRD.

What they've been looking for, said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis, are records that might expose "the inventory of nuclear weapons carried on naval ships during the Vietnam War." Mahaley said such papers could have been misfiled in any box, no matter what the label says.

Mahaley bristles at the thought that the Energy Department is "reclassifying" documents rather than finding protected information that was never properly declassified. He also said his reviewers spend little time checking a box to see if it needs page-by-page review. He said they've "sampled" about 200 million pages of declassified documents so far, "surveyed" or taken a closer look at about 107 million, and set aside about 30 million, or 15 percent, for page-by-page review.

At this point, he estimated, they have about 1.4 billion pages to go. He said it would probably take five to seven more years of "what I would characterize as a fairly large effort and then we will be able to scale it back."

Steven Garfinkel, who is in charge of encouraging government-wide declassification efforts as director of the Information Security Oversight Office, said the biggest fallout from the Energy Department program is that it has delayed public access to historically valuable records. Garfinkel had hoped that the "highly unlikely" designation would speed release of many records, but no one has used it.

"There is a tremendous reluctance on the part of the agencies to take that chance," Garfinkel said. "They are taking the rather-be-safe-than-sorry approach. They don't want DOE to go into the files and tell them, 'Here's something you missed.' "

In reports to Congress, officials at Energy say they headed off the "inadvertent release" of 22,500 pages containing a smattering of RD or FRD data in the program's first year and the next year found 40 pages, out of 52 million reviewed, that should not have been declassified. Another report is expected shortly.

In only one instance to date, according to DOE, a case involving "deployment of nuclear weapons in a foreign country in the early 1950s," did an outside researcher gain access. Mahaley declined further comment, but the document apparently was a 1961 State Department report on Jupiter missile sites in Italy that the nonprofit National Security Archive put on its Web site several years ago. The report said in part that "[i]t clearly makes no sense to continue to classify the existence of the Jupiters and their location, but the Italian government seems to want it that way, for political reasons."

Critics contend that information about where weapons were deployed decades ago is far from a threat to national security, but the legislation Congress passed gives Energy Department officials no choice but to hunt for it with a fine-tooth comb.

"Nuclear-armed vessels and aircraft were essentially all over the globe at some time," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "The problem is that Congress has said we don't want classified information disclosed without looking at how much nonsense is classified. They have set up a process that is inordinately expensive and time-consuming. It is a bad law. In a better Congress, it would be modified."

Mahaley said: "Whatever we do, we do because the law requires it. I don't have any leeway here. If it's classified, it's classified."

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post

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