Secrecy News

Energy Dept is “Committed” to Improving Declassification

The Department of Energy has responded favorably (pdf) to the recent recommendations of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) for improving the declassification of historical records.

In a January 29, 2008 directive, President Bush had instructed agencies to provide comments on the December 2007 PIDB report on “Improving Declassification” (pdf). DOE responded in a newly disclosed April 21 memorandum addressed to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

The PIDB report “offers many sound recommendations,” wrote Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, and “DOE is committed to meeting the challenges of declassification.”

In fact, DOE endorsed most of the dozens of specific recommendations presented by the PIDB, though it also opposed several. In particular, DOE expressed support for establishment of a National Declassification Center that would coordinate agency declassification programs and expedite the declassification process. DOE opposed a recommendation to treat certain nuclear weapons-related information known as Formerly Restricted Data as regular classified information.

The DOE memorandum also expressed strong support for creation of a database of declassification activity that would be made publicly accessible, a proposal that has been advocated by the Federation of American Scientists.

“The establishment of a centralized database would provide a tremendous service to the public by eliminating the requirement to search multiple agency databases to find all relevant declassified documents in a topic of interest,” DOE wrote.

Not only that, DOE said, “an electronic version of the entire document should be made available to the public rather than just the information required to request the document.”

The DOE memorandum includes some eccentric views, perhaps to make sure that readers are paying attention. Thus, DOE refuses to rule out the possibility of prosecuting someone for possessing records that were legally obtained from the government.

“DOE agrees that prosecuting members of the public for maintaining, using, or disseminating a record or information contained in a record that they had lawfully obtained from any agency of the Federal Government should be rare.”

“However, expressly prohibiting such action in an Order or statute is not advisable,” DOE said, since legal action might be necessary in order “to prevent the proliferation of information that could be particularly damaging to the national security (e.g., nuclear weapons design information).”

Overall, the DOE response to the PIDB recommendations provides a constructive basis for further policy development in anticipation of revisions to national security information policy in the next Administration.

Secrecy News obtained a copy of the DOE response under the Freedom of Information Act. Requests for other agency responses to the PIDB report are still pending.

Creation of a government-wide declassification database and other possible reforms to classification and declassification policy were discussed by myself and others in a July 12, 2007 hearing before a subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee. The record of that hearing, titled “Classification of National Security Information,” has just been published.

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