Accuracy in Media

The Energy Department recently declassified its fifth report to Congress on “inadvertent” disclosures of classified nuclear weapons information. For the past three years, classification experts have been scouring millions of pages of supposedly declassified government documents dumped into the public domain under the Clinton administration’s misguided openness policy. They have uncovered a gold mine of nuclear warhead secrets that, according to an Energy Department assessment, “would aid an adversary in obtaining a weapon of mass destruction.”

In 1993, citing the end of the Cold War and the “rapidly changing world situation,” President Clinton proposed significant changes in security classification policies that were intended to promote greater openness and trust in government. How ironic that now sounds. By executive order, he mandated automatic declassification of government documents that were more than 25 years old. The White House was in such a rush to get these materials out to the public that it eliminated the requirement of careful, page-by-page review. Instead, it permitted agencies to use a “bulk declassification” policy. Documents 25 years old or older would not be reviewed unless risk assessments warranted a more thorough review. The risk assessment was mostly a “judgment” as to whether a box of old documents might contain nuclear weapons information. There were to be some restrictions on automatic declassification, such as information that could aid in the development of a nuclear weapon, but many agencies simply ignored these.

All the defense agencies were effected by this order, including CIA. The costs were significant, but the White House expected each agency to use existing resources to meet declassification requirements. Not surprisingly, given the potential costs and the impact on other operations, many agencies “judged” that the documents didn’t contain such data and simply pushed the boxes out the door.

The documents were sent to the National Archives and Records Administration for storage. By 1997, however, it was clear that the openness policy had run amok. Energy Department security officers discovered that bulk declassification was exposing many of the nation’s nuclear secrets. They ran a test case and found that anyone with a valid driver’s license could access these files at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland regardless of nationality. In one test, an Energy Department official collected copies of detailed nuclear warhead design plans from the open shelves at the Archives. They also discovered documents from this collection on the Internet.

This simply reinforced suspicions on Capitol Hill about the recklessness of Clinton’s national security policies, and Congress sought to impose more safeguards on declassification. The Archivist, John W. Carlin, vehemently opposed this legislation as a “waste of time and resources” that would negate the letter and spirit of the administration’s policy. He said nearly 500 million pages were already at the Archives that would require review, with millions more anticipated. He argued that no one had ever proved that declassification had any effect on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but Congress added a provision to the FY1999 Defense Bill that mandated a review of each document suspected of containing nuclear secrets.

Three years later, the Energy Department has found over 300 declassified documents that contain nuclear weapons secrets. Among those discovered to date: warhead design details including size, shapes, and configurations; systems for boosting warhead yields; mass and dimensions of fissile materials, nuclear assembly systems, and the mass, design or operation of high explosives for nuclear weapons. The most recent date found on any documents is 1976, but much of the warhead design information is from early generation U.S. nuclear warhead programs. The Energy Department says this information is “of significant value” to nations embarking on the production of nuclear weapons and to terrorist groups trying to assemble a simple nuclear device.

There appear to be several hundred million pages yet to be reviewed. For FY 2002, Congress appropriated nearly $12 million for the job. The Energy Department has not responded to our requests for the total costs to date, how much remains to be done and whether documents still accessible at the Archives are suspected of containing nuclear secrets.

It would be tragic if terrorists were able to attack us using information collected from our own National Archives. The Bush administration should require that all such information be secured immediately until a thorough review can be completed.

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