Nuclear secrets mistakenly declassified

ksaldarini@govexec.com

Federal agencies inadvertently released nuclear weapon design information when complying with an executive order to declassify old information, according to a new Energy Department report.

In 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, which mandated declassification of historically valuable information that is at least 25 years old. But fears of nuclear secrets landing in the wrong hands prompted Senate Republicans to stall the declassification effort. The 1999 Defense authorization bill required agencies to do page-by-page reviews of more sensitive national security records. The bill also mandated that Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson compile all known cases of inadvertent release of restricted data in a report to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

According to Richardson's report, an audit of 948,000 pages of declassified government information turned up 14,890 pages containing restricted information, including nuclear weapons designs.

The nuclear weapons data was from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and those nuclear systems have either been retired or never reached production, the report said.

Still, "information regarding older nuclear weapons is of value since it is often technically less sophisticated," the report said. An individual interested in building a nuclear weapon "could construct an old design more easily than current weaponry with a greater probability of undergoing successful detonation."

But according to Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, DOE's report is more notable for its impact on government declassification than its effect on nuclear proliferation.

"I don't believe it is a big deal at all in terms of nuclear proliferation or damage to national security," Aftergood said.

Some of the categories of information identified in the report as sensitive aren't all that sigificant, Aftergood argued. For example, releasing the locations of nuclear weapons storage sites from 30 years ago is not going to damage national security, he said.

An Energy Department official quoted in the Washington Post made the argument that official U.S. government documents bear more credibility that unofficial sources of information on nuclear weapons.

But that argument is double-edged, Aftergood said. "From the perspective of a foreign government or would-be proliferator, they have to be suspicious of government documents and wonder whether the information in those is genuine-it could be an attempt at disinformation or deception," he said.

The real message to take from the report is that DOE officials have been able to solve the problem of unintended release of sensitive information, Aftergood said. "This report suggests that they have found a way to proceed with declassification while recovering any documents that should not be declassified."

DOE officials are continuing to review agencies' declassification efforts. So far, auditors have prevented about 22,500 improperly declassified pages of government documents from being released, the report said.

In November, Clinton extended the deadline for complying with Executive Order 12958 to October 2001-and in some cases to April 2003-for documents replete with sensitive information.

The Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists has posted the report on its Web site.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.