Congress Will Allow Energy Dept to Reclassify Nuke Info

By May 30, 2012

Congress is poised to amend the Atomic Energy Act to allow certain nuclear weapons-related information that is classified as Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) to be restored to the Restricted Data (RD) category.

FRD and RD are both classified under the Atomic Energy Act, but FRD generally pertains to the utilization of nuclear weapons, whereas RD mostly deals with nuclear weapons design information.

Last year, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wrote to Congress to propose legislation that would permit moving FRD back into the RD category, something that is currently not permitted by the Atomic Energy Act, in order to provide improved security.  (Dept of Energy Wants to Reclassify Some Info as ‘Restricted Data’, Secrecy News, January 17, 2012.)

“There is sensitive nuclear weapons design information embodied in some FRD… that should be subject to the more stringent security protections afforded RD,” Secretary Chu wrote.

The requested legislative language was approved by the House in its version of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (HR 4310, section 3153), and was also incorporated in the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the bill (S. 2467, the full text of which is not yet available).

The legislation would also permit information about foreign atomic energy programs known as Transclassified Foreign Nuclear Information (TFNI) to be transferred to the RD category, with the consent of the Director of National Intelligence.

The immediate public impact of the policy change would be negligible, since both FRD and RD are classified and in practice are equally inaccessible to the public.

But in the longer term, the move could have positive implications.  It would facilitate the elimination of the cumbersome and superfluous Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) category, a move that has been favored by critics for years. Doing so would both streamline the unworkably complicated classification apparatus and help to expedite the declassification process.

The entire FRD category could in principle be depopulated if the most sensitive information were restored to RD, as Congress will soon permit; if the least sensitive information (e.g. information about historical nuclear depot sites that no longer exist) were declassified; and if the rest were “transclassified” to national security information, i.e. the “regular” (non-Atomic Energy Act) classification system.

Eliminating FRD would in turn reduce one of the most vexing barriers to declassification of historical government records, which by law must be surveyed for the presence of FRD (and RD) before they can be publicly released.

However, the removal of information from the FRD category (either to declassify or transclassify it) requires the consent of both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.  To gain the cooperation of both agencies, it is likely that White House leadership would be needed.

Categories: Secrecy