Nuclear Weapons

What is an Unauthorized Disclosure?

08.01.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Correction added below

The anti-leak provisions proposed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in the pending FY2013 intelligence authorization act have been widely criticized as misconceived and ill-suited to achieving their presumed goals.

But they also suffer from a lack of clarity and an absence of definitions of crucial terms.

For example, there is no clear definition of “the news media” to whom unauthorized disclosures are to be prohibited, as noted today by Josh Gerstein in Politico.  Certainly a reporter for a national news organization is a member of the news media, but what about a blogger who produces original reporting?  Or a tweeter who spreads previously undisclosed information?

Nor is the term “classified information” defined in the new bill as precisely as one would wish.  By contrast, the Freedom of Information Act, for example, limits withholding of information on national security grounds to records that are “properly classified.”  Merely being “classified” is not enough to warrant an exemption from disclosure under FOIA.  (In a pending lawsuit, a court has ordered the US Trade Representative to publicly release a classified document that the court said was not properly classified. The government has so far refused.  Which position is “authorized”?)

The new Senate bill does not make any practical distinction between properly and improperly classified information, though it directs the DNI to address the issue in a report to Congress (section 504).

In fact, the very concept of an “unauthorized disclosure” is not clearly articulated in the bill.  What is it, exactly?  Though the answer may seem obvious, it is actually subject to conflicting interpretations.

According to a May 8, 2004 FBI interview with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, “it is possible to talk about something contained in a classified document without violating the law regarding declassification [sic].”

“For example, the Vice President has made numerous public statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction which were based on and, in some cases tracked, his reading of classified information…,” according to the FBI record of the interview.

“However, he did not violate any relevant laws or rules in making these statements because he did not reveal the confidential sources or methods involved in gathering the classified information,” the Vice President told the FBI (at p. 26).

“Vice President Cheney advised that he believed it was justifiable to rely on classified information to shape and inform what one says publicly.”

This is not a particularly orthodox view of classification policy.  But would such reliance on classified information in public statements constitute an unauthorized disclosure in the eyes of the Senate Intelligence Committee?  It’s unclear.

In any event, the Senate Intelligence Committee bill would not apply to White House officials [see correction below].  Nor would it penalize unauthorized disclosures originating in Congress.

The inconsistency in the Senate approach was highlighted today in two articles:  “Bill to plug leaks doesn’t reach White House” by Josh Gerstein, Politico; and “Senate’s anti-leaking bill doesn’t address the real sources of information” by David Ignatius, Washington Post.

Correction While most of the proposed anti-leak measures apply to “elements of the intelligence community,” a few provisions such as Section 501 (requiring notification of authorized release of classified information) would apply to the entire executive branch, including the White House.

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons, and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

05.08.23 | 1 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Video Indicates that Lida Air Base Might Get Russian “Nuclear Sharing” Mission in Belarus

On 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence released a short video of a Su-25 pilot explaining his new role in delivering “special [nuclear] munitions” following his training in Russia. The features seen in the video, as well as several other open-source clues, suggest that Lida Air Base––located only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and the […]

04.19.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Was There a U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accident At a Dutch Air Base? [no, it was training, see update below]

A photo in a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) student briefing from 2022 shows four people inspecting what appears to be a damaged B61 nuclear bomb.

04.03.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
STRATCOM Says China Has More ICBM Launchers Than The United States – We Have Questions

In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening […]

02.10.23 | 6 min read
read more