Suspension of declassification order delays document release

Tuesday, November 10, 1998

Press and freedom-of-information advocates say passage of the 1999 Defense Authorization Act by Congress last month will stifle the steady release of documents classified more than 25 years ago.

The new law “throws a wrench into the whole declassification program which has been extraordinarily successful until now,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to decreasing government secrecy. “The volume of records declassified over the last two years is completely unprecedented.”

In the wake of a 1995 executive order by President Clinton, the government declassified more than 400 million pages of documents. But with the passage of the Defense Authorization Act, “it is inevitable that is going to be slowed down,” Aftergood told said.

Clinton's order called for the automatic release of government reports sealed more than 25 years ago to decrease the backlog of old documents awaiting declassification. He said the release of most classified documents would no longer depend on line-by-line review.

But some U.S. senators, particularly Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., claimed that the declassification “improperly released” some highly sensitive nuclear information “and that much more is in danger of improper release in the near future.”

The new legislation suspends Clinton's order until the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Archives develop a plan ensuring that sensitive nuclear weapons information protected by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 is not released in the future.

Clinton said his administration would present a new plan within the next three months.

In July, National Archivist John Carlin told the Office of Management and Budget that the new law would place a tremendous burden on agencies to review all classified documents.

Carlin wrote that a new review process would be more regressive “than has ever been practiced since declassification efforts began in earnest in 1972.”

He said that most classified records contain no sensitive information concerning nuclear weapons and that conducting a line-by-line review of every classified report would waste time. He also said that despite the sheer volume of reports the government declassified during the last two years, there was no noticeable effect on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Although he signed the bill, President Clinton said he was disappointed that Congress passed “the overly broad provision that impedes my administration's work to declassify historically valuable records.”

Aftergood said that blocking the release of sensitive nuclear weapons documents is a legitimate concern, but one the Clinton administration had already covered.

“Nobody favors the release of sensitive nuclear secrets,” Aftergood said. “This is not something Kyl discovered. It was something discovered by the National Archives while performing declassification. As far as I can tell, the issue is being taken seriously within the Executive Branch.”

Aftergood said he perceives Kyl's legislation not as an effort directed at nuclear weapons information solely but as an attack on declassification in general.

“This Congress has been an opponent of declassification on numerous occasions,” he said. “The so-called Human Rights Information Act, a bill to expedite declassification of records on human rights violations in Central America, was blocked in the Senate last summer.”

The Defense Authorization Act, Aftergood noted, doesn't just forbid the release of documents covered under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

“It says, 'Stop all automatic declassification,'” he said. “My interpretation is that that's an expression of opposition to the successful declassification program.”

Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it's difficult to describe the immediate effects of the new law.

“But the fact that they aren't doing these automatic declassifications means that whenever there is a request for information, they've got to go through this page-by-page review,” Daugherty said. “So it's pretty serious in terms of a setback to what we all thought was an advance.”