More Dubious Secrets

Systematic Overclassification of Defense Information Poses Challenge for President Obama’s Secrecy Review

Published on The National Security Archive, by William Burr, July 17, 2009.

Pentagon classification authorities are treating classified historical documents as if they contain today’s secrets, rather than decades-old information that has not been secret for years.  Today the National Security Archive posted multiple versions of the same documents—on issues ranging from the 1973 October War to anti-ballistic missiles, strategic arms control, and U.S. policy toward China—that are already declassified and in the public domain.  What earlier declassification reviewers released in full, sometimes years ago, Pentagon reviewers have more recently excised, sometimes massively.  The overclassification highlighted by these examples poses a major problem that should be addressed by the ongoing review of national security information policy that President Obama ordered on May 27, 2009

New presumptions against classification that may be added to an executive order on national security information will not, in isolation, end overclassification. Rigorous oversight, accompanied by improved training and consequences for improper classification are essential.

Among the dubious secrets in today’s posting is the Air Force’s recent decision to classify the fact that the Nixon administrated ordered a DEFCON [Defense Readiness Condition] 3 alert during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.  An excised Air Force history, released in 2009, conceals what is well known to historians, journalists, and the interested public: in the early morning of 25 October 1973, at the height of the Arab-Israeli War, the Nixon administration put U.S. military forces on higher alert–DEFCON 3 [See Document 8A below]. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger ordered the DEFCON to deter a feared Soviet intervention in the Middle East conflict. The Nixon White House could not keep this a secret and news of the alert soon reached the national media, with The New York Times explaining to its readers what a DEFCON meant. More recently, U.S. government agencies have declassified documents mentioning the DEFCON 3 alert. In spite of the precedents and an appeal pointing out the previous disclosures, the Air Force today will not acknowledge the fact of the DEFCON, claiming that disclosure would cause “serious damage to the national security” …

… The Obama administration’s review of U.S. secrecy policy should take examples like these into account when it tries to develop a credible system for classifying and declassifying information about U.S. foreign relations and military policy.  Declassification standards for historical information (25 years old or older) should not mirror those used to declassify current information.  Neither historians, taxpayers, nor the secrecy system itself are well-served when declassification reviewers treat historical classified information in the same way as today’s secrets. This doesn’t mean a laissez-faire attitude; in some areas—such as nuclear weapons design data and names of confidential informants—there is a public interest in secrecy, but the objective should be high walls around the most sensitive information, and the walls should be torn down when they are not needed. (full text).

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