Los Alamos Says Lab Archives Now Available to Researchers

05.24.07 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Historians and other researchers may continue to access archival records at Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials said last week. But they also affirmed strict new limits on such access.

A story in Secrecy News (May 3) describing new restrictions on researchers was based on a misunderstanding by Lab personnel, Department of Energy and Lab officials said last week. Although there was a technical change in policy, access to the archives remains unaffected, the officials asserted.

The technical change occurred because Los Alamos National Security (LANS), the contractor that replaced the University of California as Lab manager, is not subject to the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

But “the actual practices at the [LANL] archives have not changed substantially due to this situation with CPRA,” officials said, particularly since the California law did not affect federal records.

Despite the new assertions, however, the current access policy for private researchers at Los Alamos is significantly constrained compared to the recent past. And the latest statement of policy is crafted in such a way as to limit direct access to unclassified records to those that have been specifically marked for public release.

In the past, Lab archivists would assist researchers by looking for relevant materials and making them available if they were unclassified. If the materials were classified, the archivists would assist with processing the records for review. That is apparently no longer the case.

Priscilla McMillan, author of the 2005 book “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” recalled that she had requested and received numerous archival records from Los Alamos over a period of two decades beginning in 1983 without ever filing a Freedom of Information Act request. She also performed research in the archive itself (usually but not always under supervision), a practice that is no longer permitted.

Today, according to an official statement, only records that are “clearly marked ‘Approved for Public Release’ may be released by the Lab archives without a FOIA request.”

“When anyone requests something from the archives that has a classification issue, FOIA has always been required,” the statement said, inaccurately.

It is of course understandable that some kind of formal review would be required prior to release of any classified records. But the wording of the current policy now requires researchers to file a FOIA request for any document — even an unclassified or previously declassified document — that is not “clearly marked ‘Approved for Public Release’.”

Notwithstanding official insistence that the current restricted access policy is “not new,” this is a departure from past practice that does not correspond to the recent experience of Ms. McMillan or other scholars and researchers.