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The End of Openness?

 

Twenty years ago, in March 1979, the Departments of Energy and Justice embarked upon an ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous assault on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That federal lawsuit, which became known as the Progressive case, resulted in the longest prior restraint on publication in the history of the U.S.

When Hazel O'Leary was confirmed as Secretary of Energy in 1993, she promised an end to such attacks and a completely new attitude toward the public. Under her stewardship, DOE established an enlightened policy of "openness," during which much previously classified information concerning nuclear weapons testing, production, and stockpiling; fissionable materials production; and human radiation experimentation was declassified and placed into public repositories and onto the Internet.

However, since Ms. O'Leary departed, the DOE, like the villainous android in Terminator 2, is apparently trying to "morph" itself back into its pre-O'Leary configuration as quickly as possible, and the policy of "openness" seems to be at an end. Witness the following:

Freedom of Information Act request processing has almost stopped. At a public meeting in 1997, Bryan Siebert, DOE's chief declassification officer, complained that the only FOIA requests being processed then were those associated with federal court cases.

Documents released under the FOIA are being more heavily redacted than ever, and are now being reviewed by agencies additional to DOE. In many cases, these agencies did not review versions of these documents declassified earlier. I recently received a document I'd requested in 1993; it had more and bigger holes in it than earlier version in my archives which had been reviewed in 1992 and 1995. The latest version had been reviewed by DOE, DOD, and the National Security Council; the latter two agencies had not reviewed either the 1992 or 1995 versions.


At least a dozen more old Atomic Energy Commission films have been declassified and are ready for release to the public. Their release has been delayed at least since Bill Richardson became DOE Secretary.

The public session of the annual DOE declassifiers' symposium in Nevada has been discontinued. This public meeting was held during the 1995, 1996, and 1997 symposia; during the 1997 public meeting, no non-DOE speakers were invited. (I spoke in 1996 and Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists spoke in 1995.)

A history of enriched uranium production in the U.S., analogous to the plutonium production history released a few years ago, is taking forever to be completed and may not ever be released.

A table released by O'Leary in 1994 listing total stockpile numbers, total stockpile megatonnage, weapon retirements, weapon dismantlements, etc. has not been updated in five years, except for dismantlement numbers which DOE reports to Congress each spring. When I filed a FOIA request to obtain the missing numbers, it was denied on the grounds that the additional information was -- and apparently will forever be -- "Formerly Restricted Data," even though similar information for years before 1994 has been declassified and published.

A recent update of DOE's interpretation of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 retained the concept of "private restricted data," under which uncleared private citizens can be prosecuted for disclosing or disseminating "restricted data" as defined under the Act, even if those citizens invent or derive this information themselves or find it in a public library. A 1992 in-house DOE study had recommended eliminating this category of information because of its obvious constitutional conflict.

The National Archives recently declassified the minutes of AEC meetings between 1946 and 1961. Unfortunately, acting at the behest of DOE, entire pages -- not just words, sentences or paragraphs -- have been removed from the minutes. These pages describe weapons development and testing; many of the pages are available either in part or in their entirety from earlier versions of these minutes declassified and made public during the 1980s and early 1990s. Current Presidential executive orders expressly forbid the reclassification of declassified information.

These incidents suggest that DOE is reverting to its old adversarial relationship vis--vis the American taxpayers which it ostensibly serves, and this drift toward more, not less, classification of innocuous information is deeply disturbing. I hope that this policy will be reversed soon -- one Progressive case was enough and another may be inevitable if DOE does not return to "openness."

 

Chuck Hansen

Editor, The Swords of Armageddon

 

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