from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
May 22, 2001


Public access to certain historical records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is being curtailed as Department of Energy classification officials implement a 1998 law that required review of previously declassified records to search for inadvertent releases of information about nuclear weapons.

Researchers are finding bouquets of withdrawal slips in boxes that formerly contained declassified documents. Records that had been on the shelves for years are suddenly unavailable.

"I have much more GAC [General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission] material at home than is now available at NARA," said historian Priscilla J. McMillan, who is writing a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Congress mandated the re-review of documents that were declassified under the 1995 executive order 12958 after it was learned that some information on nuclear weapons that was exempt from declassification had been inadvertently released in the declassification process because it was unmarked or misfiled. Critics complained that the law was unnecessarily broad; that it failed to distinguish between information that was genuinely sensitive and that which was merely classified; and that it was an inappropriate diversion of resources.

But as bad as the law was, DOE has made it worse by extending the re-review to include record groups that were declassified prior to 1995. Ms. McMillan and others found that various Atomic Energy Commission records that were partially declassified in the 1980s have now been completely removed from public access.

That was not supposed to happen. "The DOE reviewers are not to be performing re-review of records declassified under a previous executive order," a responsible Administration official told Secrecy News. But evidently that word has not filtered down to the reviewers.

The conflict of interests engendered by the re-review of previously declassified records might have been a perfect issue for consideration by the Public Interest Declassification Board that was proposed by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan and chartered by legislation last year. But that Board still does not exist, as none of its members have been named by the President or the congressional leadership. Furthermore, "nobody's talking about making it [the Board] happen," the Administration official said.

However, the issue is expected to be on the agenda of the next State Department Historical Advisory Committee meeting on June 18-19.

It is the intent of NARA officials and DOE reviewers that the re-review of declassified documents should "not seriously inconvenience" researchers, the Administration official said. "Reviewers are supposed to be giving priority to review documents that researchers want to see," he said, while acknowledging that not everyone had gotten the message and that there was no formal process for researchers to request expedited review.

The controversy over access to declassified files at the National Archives was reported by George Lardner Jr. in the Washington Post on May 19. See "DOE Puts Declassification into Reverse":


A so-called "High Level Panel" has approved the acknowledgment of some 15 cold war covert actions since it was first convened in 1998, according to a tabulation of Panel decisions obtained by Secrecy News.

The Panel, including representatives of the National Security Council, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, was created to resolve disagreements over whether to acknowledge covert actions in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, which is the State Department's official record of U.S. foreign policy.

The Panel agreed to formally acknowledge covert actions during the Johnson Administration in Italy, the Philippines, Indonesia, British Guiana, Pakistan, Iran, Dominican Republic, Thailand, Israel-Jordan, Greece, Bolivia, and Chile. A decision on whether to acknowledge other covert actions in Vietnam and China is still pending.

Covert actions in Mozambique and Panama during the 1960s were "withdrawn" from consideration. Why? "I'll have to 'glomar' that issue," an official said, meaning neither confirm nor deny anything about it.

Acknowledgment of a covert action does not automatically translate into declassification of documents. Members of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee complained last December that "while the CIA was willing to acknowledge its participation in Washington-level policy discussions, it seems opposed to releasing information on CIA activities in another country."

The Table setting forth the "Status of Johnson and Nixon Era FRUS High Level Panel Covert Action Cases" is posted here:


While the benefits of increasing openness in national and international affairs are largely self-evident, the risks are sometimes overlooked. For a variety of reasons, the transition to greater "transparency" can be a turbulent and potentially dangerous one.

A report in the Israeli press last week noted ominously that "the [Palestinian Authority] and other hostile organizations have recently obtained precise and clear high-quality aerial photographs of the entire State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, including the settlements and the military installations there."

The imagery, which was generated by Israel itself and shared with mapping institutions abroad, reportedly was acquired by Palestinian officials. The Israeli concern is that such imagery could be used by hostile forces to support targeting of Israeli sites "with a precision of several centimeters."

See "We Are on the Palestinians' Map" by Reuven Shapira, Ma'ariv, May 18 (translated by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service with only minor errors):


"A plane was shot down. Americans were killed. It was a plane that was a civilian aircraft. Why is that classified? I don't understand that," said Rep. Dan Burton at a May 1 hearing on the downing of a plane carrying American missionaries over Peru on April 20. "This is not a national security issue. Why is that classified? Why is it you guys can't tell us that? Speak to me." See excerpts from the hearing transcript here:

The policy of forceful interdiction of aircraft carrying suspected drug traffickers is explored in an important story by James Risen and Christopher Marquis in the New York Times today:

The development of that policy during the 1990s is documented in a National Security Archive briefing book prepared by Michael L. Evans here:

The special 1994 legislation that provided legal immunity for U.S. agents involved in the destruction of aircraft suspected of illicit drug trafficking is posted here:


"The existence of a global system for intercepting private and commercial communications (the Echelon interception system)... is no longer in doubt," concludes a new draft report for the European Parliament.

The May 4 draft report was prepared immediately before a delegation from the European Parliament arrived in Washington seeking meetings with U.S. intelligence officials. The delegation, which was rebuffed by the CIA, NSA and other agencies, had sought to present its concerns over the reportedly systematic interception (under the loose and inaccurate rubric "Echelon") of private communications for economic espionage purposes.

The draft report, which will be published in final form next month, traces the evolution of the Echelon controversy and the authors' understanding of the issue. "Analysis has revealed that the system cannot be nearly as extensive as some sections of the media have assumed."

Perhaps most interesting, the report places Echelon in the context of ongoing discussions over whether to establish a joint intelligence entity for members of the European Union.

"Further cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the Member States, well beyond the existing forms of cooperation, cannot be avoided," the report concludes. "It is inconceivable that the intelligence services will be the last and only area not affected by the process of European integration.... Strong European industries need joint protection against economic espionage from outside the European Union."

As for Britain, the United States' partner in many aspects of security, "intelligence gathering may be precisely the issue which forces the United Kingdom to decide whether its destiny is European or transatlantic."

The text of the unpublished May 4 draft, authored by Gerhard Schmid for the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on the Echelon Interception System (867 kB PDF file), is posted here:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.

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