Congress Permits Reclassification of Restricted Data

12.20.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Certain nuclear weapons-related information that has been removed from the category of Restricted Data (RD) and designated as Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) can now be restored to the RD category, under a provision approved by Congress in the FY 2013 national defense authorization act.

Until now, the removal of information from the Restricted Data category was irreversible, being prohibited by the Atomic Energy Act.  That prohibition is nullified by the new legislation.

The authority to reclassify FRD as RD was requested by the Department of Energy last year.

“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,” wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu in an August 4, 2011 letter.  (Dept of Energy Wants to Reclassify Some Info as ‘Restricted Data’, Secrecy News, January 17, 2012.)

From an outside point of view, the reclassification of any such information will be undetectable and should not entail an increase in government secrecy.  RD and FRD are equally opaque to the general public.

In fact, the move could potentially have positive repercussions.  By removing the most sensitive information from the FRD category, it should become more feasible to treat the remaining FRD as “ordinary” classified information and to declassify it in an orderly fashion– something which does not happen currently.

Improving declassification procedures for FRD was among the recommendations presented to the White House earlier this month by the Public Interest Declassification Board.

“FRD information concerns the military utilization of nuclear weapons, including storage locations and stockpile information and often dates from the end of World War II through the height of the Cold War,” the PIDB explained in its report. “Although often no longer sensitive or current, this type of FRD information is of high interest to researchers yet remains largely unavailable to the public, because there is no process for systematically reviewing it for declassification and release under the terms of the Executive Order for national security information.”

Therefore, the PIDB recommended, “The classification status of Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) information should be re-examined. A process should be implemented for the systematic declassification review of historical FRD information.”

In a 2010 statement to the PIDB, the Federation of American Scientists suggested that the FRD category be eliminated altogether, arguing that it has become obsolete and unnecessary.  But such a step was further than the PIDB was prepared to go.

The Senate voted last week to reauthorize the Public Interest Declassification Board until 2014, and the House followed suit yesterday by a vote of 409-1.  Rep. Don Young of Alaska voted against the measure for reasons he did not explain.