Rethinking “Formerly Restricted Data”

07.29.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Congress should eliminate the classification category known as “Formerly Restricted Data” in order to simplify and streamline classification policy, the Public Interest Declassification Board was told last week.

While most national security information (NSI) is classified by executive order, information related to nuclear weapons is classified under the Atomic Energy Act.  And such classified nuclear weapons information in turn falls into two categories:  Restricted Data (RD), which deals mainly with weapons design and production of nuclear material, and Formerly Restricted Data (FRD), which typically concerns the storage, maintenance and utilization of nuclear weapons.  (Despite its somewhat misleading name, FRD is still classified information and cannot be shared with uncleared persons.)

Incredibly, each component of this three-part classification system — NSI, RD, and FRD — has different criteria for classifying, handling, and declassifying information within its scope.  So, for example, RD can be declassified by the Secretary of Energy only when it poses no “undue risk.”  But FRD can be declassified only when doing so presents no “unreasonable risk,” and only by joint action of the Secretary of Energy and the Department of Defense. And so on.  When items from different classification categories are intermingled within the same document or records group, the processing of records for declassification all but grinds to a halt.

“The entire FRD classification category should be eliminated,” I told the Board (pdf), “because it adds needless complexity to an already baroque classification system, and it poses an unnecessary obstacle to the efficient functioning of the declassification process.”

In the past, policymakers have considered transferring FRD to the regular classification system, or partitioning FRD partly into RD and partly into NSI, but they decided against it. “The cost and effort to manage such a partition, the judgment that it was unlikely for Congress [to make the needed legislative changes], and the problems discovered at NARA [where some unmarked RD and FRD were found in declassified files] resulted in no changes in the FRD category,” said Andrew Weston-Dawkes, the Director of the Office of Classification at the Department of Energy, in a statement (pdf) to the Board.

But the “no change” approach has significant long-term costs of its own, because the current three-tiered classification system is a massive impediment to the efficient production, handling and ultimate declassification of classified government records.

“A workable classification system of the future will be simple in design, easy to implement and to correct, and modest in scale,” I suggested to the PIDB.  “The Formerly Restricted Data category is not consistent with that goal, and so it needs to go.”

Dr. William Burr of the National Security Archive and Dr. Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council described to the PIDB the historical importance of information currently withheld as FRD, the often irrational barriers to its disclosure, and the benefits of careful declassification of historically significant FRD.  Steve Henry of the Department of Defense said that the Pentagon is currently reviewing the possible declassification of historical nuclear weapons storage locations.