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January 19, 2000

U.S. finds nuclear secrets in open archives

WASHINGTON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Hundreds of declassified U.S. government documents at the National Archives, available for public perusal, contained nuclear weapons secrets that mistakenly had been left in, an Energy Department review made public on Wednesday said.

The Energy Department, due to a 1998 law, is reviewing already declassified documents to ensure that nuclear secrets were not inadvertently left in, and issued its first report to Congress shortly before Christmas, an official said.

Energy officials said the declassified documents embedded with nuclear secrets were from U.S. agencies other than the Energy Department, but declined to name them.

The issue of U.S. nuclear secrets has been a hot-button item for Congress since accusations erupted publicly last year that China allegedly obtained information on U.S. nuclear weapons through espionage, a charge that Beijing denies.

Under President Bill Clinton's order, U.S. government documents older than 25 years must be reviewed for declassification.

The Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group focused on national security issues, posted an unclassified executive summary of the report on its Web site www.fas.org.

"This is stuff that represents information about old weapons, old tests," an Energy Department official familiar with the whole report told Reuters.

Classified information was left in the documents largely due to human error in which reviewers missed markings that showed the information was restricted, the official said.

"These things are of concern because they could be valuable to someone who was trying to develop a nuclear capability," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"I'm not saying that we've discovered anything that gives away the farm ... but there are bits and pieces of information that we've pulled off the shelves that are classified and should not have been there," the official added.


Of 948,000 pages audited by the Energy Department, 14,890 pages included restricted information that should not have been declassified, the report to Congress said.

"I recognize the gravity of these inadvertent releases," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner dated Nov. 29, 1999.

Energy Department staff prevented the inadvertent release of nuclear secrets in about 2,250 documents that were in the process of being issued publicly, Richardson said.

There was only one case in which there was "compelling evidence" that classified information was used by a researcher, the report said. That information related to the deployment of nuclear weapons in a foreign country in the early 1950s, rather than nuclear design or production information.

The executive summary of the report said the restricted material inadvertently released included:

The release of such information is of concern because it could benefit U.S. adversaries and "terrorist groups" as older nuclear weapons are easier to construct than current weapons, the report said.

"Nuclear weapons, it's the laws of physics that apply, and a weapon that worked well with a World War Two design would still function today. So there are still parts of the weapons that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that are classified," the Energy official said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters Limited.

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