Dept of Energy Wants to Reclassify Some Info as “Restricted Data”

01.17.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Department of Energy has asked Congress to amend the Atomic Energy Act to allow certain nuclear weapons information that has been removed from the “Restricted Data” classification category to be restored to that category.

“Restricted Data” (RD) pertains to classified nuclear weapons design information.  It is distinguished from “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) which generally concerns the utilization of nuclear weapons.  (Despite the use of the word “formerly,” FRD is also a category of classified information.)

In a letter to Congress requesting the proposed amendment, Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested that the current arrangement leaves some nuclear weapons design information inadequately protected.

“There is sensitive nuclear weapons design information embodied in some FRD… that should be subject to the more stringent security protections afforded RD now than current programmatic capabilities of DoD and the Intelligence Community permit,” Secretary Chu wrote in an August 4, 2011 letter that was released last week.  Energy Department officials did not respond to a request from Secrecy News for elaboration on this point.

But in a July 2010 statement to the Public Interest Declassification Board, Andrew Weston-Dawkes of the Department of Energy Office of Classification said that FRD today contains not only information on nuclear weapons utilization but also “some of the most sensitive design information.”  Specifically, he said that FRD includes design information on “safing arming and fuzing, use control information, [and] hardening.”

Such design information was removed from the RD category in order “to support the mission requirements of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community,” Secretary Chu explained in his letter.  But once removed, the information by law cannot be redesignated as RD without an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act.  Hence the DOE proposal to Congress.

The immediate implications of the proposal are probably quite limited, particularly since it applies only to “design information” and “foreign nuclear information” that is currently classified in any case (albeit as FRD or “TFNI,” for Transclassified Foreign Nuclear Information).

In the longer term, the authority to reclassify certain narrow categories of FRD as RD, if granted, may help to reduce DOE opposition to the elimination of the entire FRD category — which critics including the Federation of American Scientists have advocated — and its integration into the normal national security classification system.

The Public Interest Declassification Board, an advisory body on classification and declassification policy, has proposed that FRD records that are more than 25 years old should be treated like any other classified records for purposes of declassification review and processing.

But these changes would also require legislative action, which has not been requested by DOE.  Nor has Congress acted on Secretary Chu’s August 2011 proposal to date.

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On January 10, the White House announced the appointment of Amb. Nancy E. Soderberg as chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board and the re-appointment of Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker as a member of the Board.

“Restricted Data” is the name of an informative new blog written by historian Alex Wellerstein “about nuclear secrecy, past and present.”  It often features fascinating archival discoveries along with the author’s historical insights.

“Born Secret” by Alexander DeVolpi, et al, is a thoughtful and meticulous account of the 1979 “Progressive” case in which the U.S. government sought to prevent the publication of H-Bomb design information gathered by researcher Howard Morland.  It has recently been reissued as an e-book.