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Transforming Classification: The Public Interest Declassification Board’s Final Call for Topics

January 28, 2014

This post can also be found on the National Archives and Records Administration’s blog, Transforming Classification.

The Board’s report on Transforming the Security Classification System includes an important and valuable recommendation for a close look at the “formerly restricted data” [FRD] rules which prevent the declassification of information about the past deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons, even when it has long been overtaken by events. According to PIDB, “A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of historical FRD information.” To make it possible to declassify information about the historical locations of nuclear weapons, PIDB raises the possibility of converting FRD about the deployments into the “national security information” category. An Act of Congress has already laid the way for doing so and amendments to Executive Order 13526 would complete the fix.
If the historical locations of the U.S’s overseas nuclear deployments were no longer under a blanket exemption, then security reviewers could declassify at least on a case-by-case basis. Historians could then write more easily about the role that nuclear weapons deployments played in U.S. diplomatic relations with a wide range of countries around the world.

Time and time again, researchers at the National Security Archive and others as well have encountered the problem of Cold War-era exempted FRD. The Defense Department and other agencies have answered many FOIA and mandatory declassification review requests with heavily excised documents because of the FRD exclusion. While some records on the deployments could be found at the National Archives before the late 1990s, for the most part they disappeared from the files because of special reviews required by the Kyl-Lott Amendment. Partly triggered by a scare over alleged Chinese spies in the U.S. nuclear complex but also by the discovery of “unmarked FRD” in archival records, Kyl-Lott was a setback to the progress made by the Clinton administration in declassifying Cold War-era archival records. It required Department of Energy security reviewers to impound previously open archival records and to scrub them of restricted data (RD) about nuclear weapons design and fissile materials production or FRD about the historical locations and other topics. As it turned out, much of what the DOE reviewers found was in the FRD category, most likely documents concerning the historical deployments whose sensitivity was arguable.

A number of postings on the National Security Archive Web site have addressed the problem of the historical overseas locations of U.S. nuclear weapons and the problems raised by FRD. One in 1999 concerned a then recently declassified, but heavily excised, Defense Department history from 1978 on the history of nuclear custody. Drawing on that history, Archive senior analyst William Burr working with Robert S. Norris (then directing the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear project) and independent writer William Arkin tried to tease out the names of all of the countries where the United States had deployed nuclear weapons during the Cold War. They published two articles on the deployments in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. One, “Where They Were,” appeared in the Nov-December 1999 issue with supporting documents in an Archive-NDRC posting. The authors mistakenly identified Iceland as a storage site for nuclear weapons but quickly learned that two islands—Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima–in the U.S. occupied Bonin Islands were storage sites before they were restored to Japan in 1968. This new knowledge led to another article, “How Much Did Japan Know?”, in the January-February 2000 issue of The Bulletin, which was supported with another Archive-NRDC posting.

In 2006, the Archive published an Electronic Briefing Book entitled “How Many and Where Were the Nukes?” Specifically addressing the FRD problem, the EBB’s second part included a heavily excised inventory of the overseas locations as of 1968 that the Defense Department had recently released. The posting made this point, among others: “declassifying information on the Cold War deployments is a complex problem, but the U.S. public deserves something more reasonable than the current blanket policy of secrecy.”

In early 2013, the persistence of the FRD problem, but also the promise of the PIDB reform proposal, occasioned an entry on the Archive’s blog Unredacted. It concerned the Air Force’s recent partial declassification of documents about a nuclear weapons accident in Morocco in January 1958, although the word “Morocco” was excised from the documents. The posting closed with an endorsement of the PIDB proposals, asserting that without their enactment “the Air Force and other agencies will continue to redact obsolete information about Cold War nuclear deployments.”

Another blog entry called readers’ attention to a remarkable series of publications by historians working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The historians had secured the declassification of thousands of pages of histories of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe [SHAPE], the seat of command for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. These are invaluable histories but what was especially striking about them was the common-sense approach they took regarding information about U.S. nuclear deployments in Western Europe, whether actual or prospective. According to the posting, NATO’s “pragmatic” decision “usefully illustrates the archaic character of FRD classification rules.” Declassification would have been unlikely if the NATO histories had gone through the U.S. review process.

Implementing the PIDB’s recommendations on FRD would be an important step in fixing the U.S. classification/declassification system and could only expedite the work of NARA’s National Declassification Center, which sees nuclear secrecy as “the greatest challenge” to the review of the backlog of classified records. Nevertheless, this will be an uphill fight because opposition to reform can be found in the mid-levels of the national security bureaucracy, especially at Defense and the Energy Department, while senior officials at Defense who support reform are leaving government. All the same, solving this problem would provide the Obama White House with a significant accomplishment in increasing government transparency.

If and when the FRD problem is resolved, some U.S. government agencies may still block the declassification of past deployments, for example, by citing damage to “national security” or “ongoing diplomatic relations.” It is also possible that some governments will object to the U.S. government disclosing facts about past nuclear deployments in their countries. But at least the problem will be in the open and one less arcane concept will be available to security reviewers to prevent the declassification of valuable information on U.S. nuclear history.

William Burr, Senior Analyst, The National Security Archive

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