Lawmakers fear nuclear secrets may slip out in declassified papers
Tuesday, August 24th 1999, 12:00 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Box-by-box, sometimes line-by-line, government
record keepers have worked the past three years to declassify 600
million pages of documents, opening doors to America's secret past.
Now, because Washington fears that China got its hands on U.S.
nuclear secrets, these bleary-eyed declassifiers could face a
daunting new task: Doing it again.
Legislation headed for approval in Congress would require all of
the documents to be re-examined to make sure that sensitive details
about the U.S. nuclear arsenal don't slip out of the government's
"This is all part of the frenzy about Chinese espionage that is
driving Washington crazy," said Steven Aftergood, who directs The
Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American
Scientists. "The idea that they're going to reread material that's
already been declassified is preposterous. It will basically
cripple the declassification program by driving it in circles."
Present efforts to lift the veil of government secrecy are
driven by an executive order President Clinton signed in 1995. The
order instructs federal agencies to open -- by April 2000 --
classified records that contain historical material and are more
than 25 years old. Exceptions are narrowly defined.
In the past three years, more than 600 million pages have been
Subjects range from the Cold War to Vietnam, POWs to UFOs.
Researchers are rewriting history with new information about the
U.S.-Soviet arms race, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a
1973 coup in Chile, covert action around the globe, and more.
The public already can access 400 million pages that have been
unsealed. Another 200 million pages are declassified, but are not
yet on public shelves. Nearly 1 billion more pages still must be
Declassification was moving at a fast clip until last year when
some lawmakers worried that nuclear secrets --still classified
under the Atomic Energy Act -- weren't being properly protected.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Bob Smith,
I-N.H., wrote to National Security Adviser Samuel Berger saying
that "in a frenzied attempt" to meet the April 2000 deadline,
documents containing sensitive nuclear weapons information may have
been released, or were in danger of being released.
Such concerns prompted Congress to pass a law last year
requiring declassifiers to come up with a plan to scan documents,
page-by-page, looking for nuclear material -- unless the records
were "highly unlikely" to contain such information.
This year, after a government scientist suspected of giving
nuclear secrets to China was fired in March for alleged security
violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico,
lawmakers sought even tougher scrutiny.
Buried in the defense authorization act for fiscal 2000 is a
provision that would make last year's law retroactive. It would
require record keepers to re-inspect documents declassified since
the executive order took effect about three years ago.
"In a recent 140-page study of improperly released nuclear
weapons data, the administration detailed numerous examples of key
design information that was not intended to be released, but, in
fact, was released," Kyl said. "We have to be careful not to
continue to accidentally release sensitive nuclear weapons design
data that countries like Iran and Iraq could use to advance their
own nuclear weapons programs."
Already approved by a House-Senate conference committee,
Congress is to vote on the bill after its summer recess.
National Security Council spokesman David Leavy would not
disclose the administration's reaction to the provision, except to
say: "We have to be reasonable while balancing national security
concerns." He also would not speculate on whether Clinton would
sign the bill.