from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 70
July 27, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


Last month the National Security Agency announced the declassification of various historic records as evidence of its "commitment to meeting the requirements" of President Obama's policy on openness and transparency. Among the newly declassified records was a 200 year old publication on cryptology. ("NSA Declassifies 200 Year Old Report," Secrecy News, June 9, 2011.)

NSA listed the 1809 study as a "highlight" of the new releases in a press statement, and the National Archives featured it in a promotional blog posting. But upon inspection, it turns out that the newly released document was already in the public domain and freely available online.

Instead of providing cause for celebration or congratulation, the NSA "release" is a disturbing sign of futility and irrelevance in the nation's declassification program.

The June 8 NSA press statement hailed the disclosure of "early publications on cryptography, including 'Cryptology: Instruction Book on the Art of Secret Writing' from 1809. In fact, the document is a German work and its real title is "Kryptographik: Lehrbuch der Geheimschreibekunst..." by Johann Ludwig Klueber (1762-1837), who was the first Professor of Law at the University of Heidelberg.

According to a June 14 blog post by James Rush of the National Archives, this work was among the German government records that were seized by U.S. forces after the defeat of Germany in World War II, and it found its way into U.S. intelligence files.

Though the NSA press statement seemed to indicate that the full publication was being disclosed, the material that was released by NSA was actually just a 40 page abstract and excerpt of the author's much longer work. A copy of what was transferred to the National Archives is now posted here:

The cover sheet indicates that the document was classified as Secret, and that it was formally declassified on November 12, 2010 by D. Janosek, NSA Deputy Associate Director for Policy and Records, along with a second reviewer who was identified only by his or her initials.

But what neither the National Security Agency nor the National Archives seemed to realize is that not only had the source material never been classified -- and so could not properly be "declassified" -- but that it was already publicly available. The full 532 page text of the 1809 study -- not just a 40 page abstract -- was actually digitized several years ago and published online through Google Books. It can be found here:

Two obvious inferences may be drawn from this episode. First, there is extravagant overclassification at the National Security Agency, as in many other corners of government. This means that access restrictions are being imposed on records that do not require or deserve such protection. Second, there is a lack of effective oversight mechanisms to promptly identify and correct such instances of overclassification. There are always going to be classification errors, so there need to be robust error correction mechanisms. Ideally, Google Books would not be one of them.


The latest volume of the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series documents U.S. Mideast policy before, during and immediately after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. It was published this month following a four year declassification review that lasted from 2006 to 2010.

Among numerous topics of historic and current interest, the 1200 page volume touches glancingly on the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons program.

"Do Egypt and Israel have the capability to make nuclear weapons?" asked Sen. Mike Mansfield at a November 27, 1973 White House meeting (page 993). "Israel has the capability to make small numbers," answered Henry Kissinger. "Not Egypt." (This exchange was also noted by Amir Oren in Ha'aretz on July 22).

The late Admiral Noel A. Gayler, the former NSA director and advocate of nuclear disarmament who died July 14, is included on the list of "Persons" in the new FRUS volume though his name does not appear elsewhere in the text.


In the past 18 months, the National Declassification Center has completed processing of less than 5% of the 400 million page backlog of 25 year old historical records that are awaiting declassification. Still, the Center "remain[s] confident" that it will meet the December 2013 deadline set by President Obama for processing the entire backlog.

The Center has just published a new biannual report outlining its progress to date along with a description of current efforts and challenges ahead. The report notes that of the 18 million pages that have undergone declassification review at the Center thus far, 92% have been declassified and made available to the public.


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

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