Nuclear secrets mistakenly declassified

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.

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