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Congress Makes a Law and the Pentagon Redacts It

March 22, 2013
Another redacted document.  One hopes --but can never know for sure-- that these redactions were actually justified.

Another redacted document. One hopes –but can never know for sure– that these redactions were actually justified.

The National Security Archive staffers have seen all sorts of responses from U.S. government agencies, often routine, sometimes extraordinarily helpful, but once in a while absurd. A recent Pentagon mandatory declassification review action falls into the “absurd” category: Pentagon reviewers censored language from a U.S. public law and a unclassified report to Congress.

At issue in the decision was an April 1983 Pentagon report to Congress on “Direct Communications Links and Other Measures to Enhance Stability.”  The report, by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, was in response to Section 1123 of Public Law 97-252 calling for a study of measures to prevent U.S.-Soviet crises from getting out of hand so as to minimize risks of nuclear war. The law asked for a study of various proposals, such as crisis control centers and improvements in the Moscow-Washington hotline.  According to section (a) (3) (c) of the law, the Defense Department study should examine “measures to reduce the vulnerability of command, control, and communications of both nations.” In its release the Defense Department withheld that language, treating it as if it were a state secret (see page 5 of PDF).  While the excerpt from the public law is included in the top secret section, it is in an unclassified (u) paragraph and it is evident that it is statutory and not secret.

Following the top secret version of the report is the unclassified report to Congress (see pages 40-60 of PDF).   In keeping with its excision of a public law, the Defense Department redacted portions of the unclassified report, which can be found in the Congressional Record.  Admittedly security reviewers cannot know everything that is in the public record, yet the final section of the report, as released by the Pentagon, has no classification markings and the cover memo described it as the “unclassified version.” That should have encouraged the reviewers to leave it untouched but they did not.

On the left, the first page of the unclassified April 1983 report found in the Congressional Record, and on the right, the redacted version of to the same selection of the unclassified report.

On the left, the first page of the unclassified April 1983 report found in the Congressional Record, and on the right, the redacted version of to the same selection of the unclassified report.

From the unclassified report, the reviewers made a number of excisions which can be discerned by interspersing the Congressional Record material in the redacted areas.  One of the excisions is stereotypical Cold War language: that the Soviet Union “encourages and takes advantage of political and military instabilities throughout the world and is likely to exploit any ambiguities in a negotiated agreement.” Another redaction is in the last section [60-61 of PDF) relating to “measures to reduce vulnerability of command, control, and communications (C3) on both sides.”  Other excisions have to do with concern that that the Soviet Union could use “confidence building measures” and a proposed “Information Sharing Facility” as covers for intelligence operations.

Next to each of the excisions in the Pentagon release are references to the provisions of Executive Order 13526 used to justify them.  The Defense Department decision letter spells out the references.  Next to the paragraphs on command and control in the unclassified report and the public law are citations to section 3.3. (b) (8) which is designed to protect information that would “reveal current vulnerabilities of systems … relating to national security.” The readers can make up their own minds whether the unclassified language represents a danger in that respect. Section 3.3 (b) (6) was used to excise the references to the former Soviet Union on the grounds that releasing the information would “cause serious harm to relations between the United States and a foreign government.” This does not make sense; not only does the Soviet Union no longer exist the information has no sensitivity 30 years later.

From the Archive’s experience, the FOIA and the mandatory review office at the Defense Department operate with great professionalism even if we do not always agree with their declassification decisions.  Nevertheless that officials in the defense bureaucracy, including the Joint Staff, redacted a public law and other public information is more evidence that something has gone awry with the declassification review system. Perhaps the review was the result of out- of-control automatic data processing, but whatever happened it points to the need for better quality control. Certainly in this period of sequesteration it is important that officials responsible for declassification review do not waste time and resources by trying to classify the unclassifiable.

The documents are now before the Interagency Security Classification Appeal Panel, where other government agencies can review and overrule the Defense Department’s decisions.

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