More Dubious Secrets
Systematic Overclassification of Defense Information
Poses Challenge for President Obama's Secrecy Review

Edited by William Burr

Posted - July 17, 2009

Note: On 12 January 2010, six months after this posting and eighteen months after the excisions of NSDM 16 were appealed, the Department of Defense released an unredacted version of the document. 

Pentagon classification authorities are treating classified historical documents as if they contain today's secrets, rather than decades-old information that has not been secret for years.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."

This is one of a number of Pentagon Freedom of Information Act releases (FOIA) during the last few years, all of which are telling instances of excessive deletions, overclassification, and the application of inappropriate declassification guidelines. Other examples include:

  • Declassification reviewers withheld nearly-fifty-year-old information on the early history of the U.S. nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), which other offices at the Pentagon were about to declassify under mandatory review. (See Documents 1A-B).
  • Multiple instances of declassification authorities withholding the contents of documents on anti-ballistic missiles, strategic arms control, and U.S. policy toward China, all of which had been declassified years earlier, with one of them even published in the State Department's historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States (e.g., Documents 3A-B, 4A-B and 7A-B).

These flawed classification decisions stem from overly stringent guidelines that are inappropriate for the declassification review of historical documents. Among the Pentagon offices that made these recent declassification decisions are the Joint Staff, the Strategic Threat Reduction Office, and the Program Analysis and Evaluation Office. For some of these documents, reviewers at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency also weighed in. Admittedly, declassification is a subjective process and mistakes can be made. Declassification reviewers cannot know everything that has already been declassified, but one wonders why earlier security reviewers could make decisions to declassify information that contemporary reviewers now believe must be kept classified.  In some instances, the recent reviewers were made aware of the prior declassification releases and nevertheless decided to keep the information classified.  The guidelines that declassification reviewers follow should be realistic and useful enough so that significant, but no longer sensitive, historical information can be routinely declassified and made available to the public.

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.


Board Hears Public Comments on Classification Policy; Archive Submits Recommendations to Improve Classification and Declassification

The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) held a public meeting last week and continues to accept comments online as part of its ongoing process to gather public input on classification and declassification policy and recommend revisions to EO 12958. National Security Archive General Counsel Meredith Fuchs commented at the meeting, urging that "any effort to revise the executive order that fails to focus the classification standards and presumptions, that fails to improve incentives against overclassification, and that fails to improve oversight and training within the executive branch is a missed opportunity."

The Archive is also participating in the Declassification Policy Forum blog, an online forum for the public to make recommendations to the PIDB. The forum is divided into several topic areas, covering Declassification Policy, the National Declassification Center, Classification Policy, and Technology Challenges and Opportunities.

The National Security Archive has submitted several comments on the blog regarding declassification policy, the National Declassification Center, and classification policy. Members of the public can comment or vote until Sunday, July 19.



Misdirection of classification resources at the CIA

Edited by John Prados

The CIA Research Tool (CREST), a database of declassified CIA material maintained at the National Archives (College Park) and several of the presidential libraries, is a valuable source for information on the CIA's analytical/reporting efforts over the years as well as some of the Agency's breakthroughs in photographic intelligence collection (U-2, Corona).

For much of the decade, researchers have been making productive use of the annual updates of CREST databases.  Nevertheless, a close look at material posted on CREST, in this instance, collections of the "Journal of the [CIA] Legislative Counsel" from the mid-1970s, raises questions about the arbitrary and capricious way that the Agency uses relatively scarce resources to protect supposedly sensitive information... Read more


Documents 1A-B: The Single Integrated Operational Plan [SIOP]

Document 1A: Working Papers, Joint Chiefs of Staff, "JCS SIOP-62," n.d. [Late 1960], Top Secret, Excised copy, released by Defense Department 2007
Document 1B:  Briefing, "Introduction to SIOP-63," n.d. [June 1962], Top Secret, excised copy, released by Defense Department, 2007

In 2007, the Defense Department's FOIA office released these heavily excised briefings on the earliest versions of the Single Integrated Operational Plan in response to an appeal filed 12 years ago.  The massive redactions prevent the reader from learning anything significant about the plans, such as, for example, target priorities, attack options, and provisions for withholding some targets from attack.   Nevertheless, most of the excisions are unwarranted as demonstrated by decisions also made in 2007 by the Washington Headquarters Service's declassification office to release significant information on the early SIOP, including SIOP-62 and SIOP-63, in response to mandatory review appeals.  Even if some of the details in the briefings are still properly classified, the scale of the excisions is extreme.  These are prime examples of the excessively stringent declassification review process at the Pentagon.

Documents 2A-D: Fatalities and Targets

Document 2A: Office of the Secretary of Defense,  "Summary of Population Fatalities from Nuclear War in 1966," 17 February 1962, with attachment on "Soviet Bloc Targets and U.S. and NATO Destruction Capabilities as of Mid-1967," 15 February 1962, both Top Secret, released 1993
Source: NARA, Record Group 200, Papers of Robert S. McNamara, file: Defense Projects and Operations. Box 83. B-70 - McNamara Statements
Document 2B: Same document, as excised by Defense Department, November 2008
Document 2C: Office of the Secretary of Defense, "U.S.-Soviet Strategic Exchange (1976)," n.d. [circa 1966], Top Secret, annotations by Robert McNamara, released 1996
Source: RG 200, McNamara Papers, Defense Projects and Operations, box 83, B-70 - McNamara Statements
Document 2D: Same document, as excised by Defense Department, November 2008

A quick look at these documents shows that Defense Department reviewers sought to withhold estimates of fatality levels from a nuclear war, although using different standards.  From page 1 of document 2B only Soviet fatalities and the reference to Soviet "cities" were excised, while from 2D all casualty estimates were excised. Declassified information on estimated fatalities from nuclear war is already in the public record, as is the fact that Soviet "cities" would be targeted, so it is hard to understand why security reviewers believed that this Cold War information remains sensitive.  While page 2 of document 2A, which the Pentagon withheld completely in document 2B, has the appearance of sensitivity, significant information on prospective Soviet targets has already been declassified, even appearing in the State Department Foreign Relations compilations from the 1960s.

These documents were prepared for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (document 2C has his annotations on it) and complete, non-excised versions were routinely declassified during the 1990s.  The full versions give a sense of the horrible destructiveness of a U.S-Soviet nuclear war, triggered under various circumstances (e.g., first strike by, or 15 minute warning for, both superpowers), as estimated by defense officials.  Besides estimates of U.S., Soviet, and Western European fatalities, document 2A includes a page estimating aim points, warhead assignments, and fatalities for a U.S.-NATO strike against Soviet bloc targets, under conditions of 15 minute warning of a Soviet strike or no warning of a Soviet nuclear attack. The strike option "II" that includes a substantial NATO medium-range missile forces estimated better "expected kill" results than otherwise.

Document 2B is more complex because of its hidden assumptions.  Probably used for illustrative purposes in discussion of the FY 1968 defense budget, it includes 8 "cases" of U.S. and Soviet first strike scenarios based on varying assumptions about U.S. and Soviet force postures in 1976.  For example, the cases included different levels of U.S. military expenditures, the "approved program" and two alternatives, Postures A and B, which posited different levels of spending on the Nike-X anti-ballistic missile system: Posture A ($8 billion), supporting defense of 25 cities, and Posture B ($17.5 billion), supporting defense of 52 cities.  The cases also included the possibility of a "US. Missile only AD", that is, a retaliatory U.S. strike against "assured destruction" urban-industrial targets designed to destroy one third of Soviet industry and population.  The cases also include assumptions about Soviet force levels, e.g., whether they are based on the "NIE" threat posited in the current National Intelligence Estimate, whether Soviet missiles are equipped with "Pen-Aids" (Penetration aids such as decoys to confuse missile defenses), or whether the Soviets deployed mobile ICBMs. (Note 1

Documents 3A-B: China

Document 3A: Special State-Defense Study Group, Working Paper, "Relations with Communist China: An Inventory of Problems Which the United States May Face in the Coming Decade," 15 February 1966, Top Secret, released 1997
Source: RG 59, U.S. Department of State Records. Records of Ambassador-at-Large Llewellyn E. Thompson, 1961-1970, box 4, China
Document 3B: same document, as released by Defense Department, January 2009

This report, prepared during the deliberations of a special State Department-Defense Department study group, embodied a Cold War vision seeking "containment" of Chinese power in order to "fit China into an orderly world system." The authors never tackled directly the possibility of engagement through negotiations and rapprochement (perhaps a more sophisticated version of containment), but only raised questions about the possibility of finding a "common ground of interest" and "mutual tolerance."  While the full version of this document has been in the declassified archival record since 1997, the version released by the Defense Department has excisions on topics that were sensitive in the 1960s, but which have been in the declassified record for some time, such as estimates of Chinese missiles force development, possibilities of preemptive strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities, and speculation about a Japanese nuclear capacity. Other excisions are of topics that are wholly innocuous and anodyne, such as methods to influence Asian communism, Soviet-Japanese and Soviet-Indian relations, and the British role east of Suez.

While security reviewers cannot know everything that has been declassified, they should have reasonable standards to help them make declassification decisions.  What security interests are now protected by withholding information from this report is hard to fathom.  It is as if the reviewers were treating this plainly historical document as if it were current information whose disclosure would cause serious harm to U.S. policy today.

Documents 4A-B: Missile Defense

Document 4A:  Secretary of Defense McNamara Memorandum for the President, "Production and Deployment of the Nike-X," 2 December 1966, Top Secret
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library, National Security File, box 16, Agency File, "Defense, Defense Dept. Budget for FY65 & Supplemental Appropriation for FY67"
Document 4B: Same document, version dated 10 December 1966, released in excised form by Defense Department, November 2008

This document has been declassified virtually in full since 2002, when it was published in the State Department's Foreign Relations series. (Note 2) Since then, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library released a related version, also nearly in full. Nevertheless, in late 2008 the Defense Department released the excised version presented here with several pages withheld from an intelligence-based account of the Soviet ABM program.  Although the debate between Moscow and Washington over the U.S. missile defense system deployments has been hot, it is perplexing why the Defense Department and possibly other agencies believe that the declassification of decades-old assessments of the Soviet ABM could harm national security when they had already approved the release of the McNamara memorandum.  Again, one cannot expect overburdened security reviewers to know everything that been declassified in the past, but one can only wonder why the reviewers are now withholding information that other security reviewers saw fit to release in the past.

Documents 5A-B: Sufficiency

Document 5A: National Security Decision Memorandum 16, "Criteria for Strategic Sufficiency"
24 June 1969, Top Secret, NSC FOIA release 1989
Document 5B: Same document, as excised by Defense Department, July 2008

The Nixon White House produced NSDM 16, a set of very general "Criteria for Strategic Sufficiency," to provide guidelines to the Pentagon and other agencies for the U.S. strategic force posture.  "Sufficiency" was the watchword for the new administration, to show that it did not seek superiority and that it was taking a direction different from the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara assured destruction concept. Nevertheless, the break from the past was slight; both administrations sought a retaliatory capacity that was destructive enough to deter a Soviet first strike.  Moreover, like the Johnson administration, Nixon and Kissinger initially justified an ABM program to "limit damage" from attacks by small nuclear powers (e.g., China); the danger of accidental launches provided another reason.

NSDM 16 is so innocuous that it has been declassified for years, since 1989 when National Security Council reviewers first released it (The State Department also released it again in the mid-1990s and another version may be found on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists).  Nonetheless, the Pentagon's reviewers treated it as a sensitive document and exempted its contents from declassification.      

Documents 6A-B:  Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT)

Document 6A:  National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to Secretary of Defense et al., "Preparations for Next Round of SALT," 30 December 1969, with attached "Verification Working Group Task Y Outline," Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Records of the Policy Planning Council, Miscellaneous Records, 1959-1972, SALT December 1969
Document 6B: National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger to the Vice President et al., "NSC Meeting on SALT," 24 March 1970, Confidential, with excised attachments, as released by Defense Department, March 2008

During the fall of 1969, U.S. and Soviet negotiators conducted the first round of strategic arms limitation talks.  In the weeks that followed, Nixon administration officials began preparations for the round of talks that would begin in the spring of 1970.  Document B, as released by the Pentagon in 2008, includes, as an attachment, a Kissinger memorandum of 30 December 1969 on the preparations with an enclosure "Verification Working Group Task Y Outline" (see 6B). As it turns out, the Kissinger memorandum and the attachment had been routinely declassified over 10 years ago at the National Archives (See enclosure 6A).  A comparison of pages 7 through 11 (PDF page numbers) of document 6B with document 6A shows that Defense Department reviewers excised truly harmless language about a range of SALT issues.  For example, this was redacted from the Kissinger memorandum: "The question of whether we should enter the next round of SALT with a single position or with several options will be resolved following the NSC meeting." Even the discussion of "Verification Policy Options," sometimes a sensitive issue because of intelligence secrecy, is so general (non-interference with "national means of verification") that redaction should not even be an option.  Similarly, the excision in the discussion of "Polaris Vulnerability" briefly questions, in very general terms, the notion, sometimes raised in strategy discussions since the 1960s, whether the U.S. can rely on submarine-launched missiles or other mobile missile system for deterrence. 

Documents 7A-B: Gerard C. Smith on SALT

Document 7A: National Security Adviser Kissinger to Secretary of State et al, "ACDA Views on SALT Talks," 24 March 1970, Secret, NSC FOIA release 2000
Document 7B: Same document, as released by the Defense Department, March 2008

Writing to President Nixon before the second series of SALT talks began, chief negotiator and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) Gerard C. Smith (a veteran of the Eisenhower administration) observed that two types of agreements were possible. One would be a comprehensive agreement, with a ban of multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and low levels of ABMs, the other would be a "relatively simple" freeze of major delivery systems.  Smith plainly favored the former, but Kissinger would eventually pursue a freeze (in part, because his negotiating tactics undercut the possibility of a comprehensive agreement). (Note 3) This document is a useful exposition of Smith's thinking, but after so many decades have passed there is nothing sensitive about it and it is perplexing why Defense Department officials decided to exempt the letter's contents.  This is an exceptional example of excessive secrecy.  In any event, the NSC declassified the document years ago (7A) and it may also be found in the files of the Nixon Library.

Documents 8A-D: DEFCON 3 During the October War

Document 8A: Office of the Historian, Strategic Air Command, SAC History Study # 139, "Chronology, Subj: Middle East Crisis," 12 December 1973, Top Secret, Excised Copy, final Air Force response to appeal, June 2009
Document 8B: Kissinger "telcon" with British Ambassador Lord Cromer, 25 October 1973, 1:03 A.M.
Source: State Department FOIA release
Document 8C: JCS Cable 2733 to CINCPAC et al., "Current Situation," 25 October 1973
Document 8D: JCS Cable 5694 to CINCPAC et al., "Current Situation," 28 October 1973
Document 8E: JCS Cable 8779 to CINCPAC et al., "Current Situation," 31 October 1973    
Source for C, D, and E: National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of JCS Chairman Thomas Moorer, box
Document 8F: Office of the Historian, Strategic Air Command, Historical Study No. 151, "History of SAC Reconnaissance Operations FY 1974," 22 August 1975, Top Secret, excerpts

During the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Henry Kissinger and the National Security Council put the U.S. military, including strategic forces on a higher alert posture-- DEFCON 3 ("Roundhouse")--in response to a perceived threat by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to intervene in the conflict. A DEFCON 3 alert was lower than the alert posture taken during the Cuban missile crisis, DEFCON 2, which readies forces for nuclear war, but higher than the usual readiness level.  Whatever merits the White House decision may have had, whether it was a response to an actual threat or an overreaction to a Soviet miscalculation, the DEFCON 3 alert was immediately controversial, with critics linking it to Nixon's embattled posture in the unfolding Watergate crisis.  Controversy did not abate when it became learned that Nixon was apparently indisposed the night of 24 October and may have played no role in the decision process.  What made controversy possible in the first place was that the alert was far from secret (not what Kissinger had expected) because word of it quickly spread from military units to the media, which duly reported on the five conditions of "defense readiness." (Note 4)

Although much has been written about the DEFCON 3 declaration, not much has been declassified about it.  To shed light on what happened "operationally" the National Security Archive filed requests for the Strategic Air Command headquarters chronology of the Middle East crisis (Document 8A). Yet, the significantly excised version of the SAC chronology released by the Air Force conspicuously conceals any references to the DEFCON (see Document 8A, page 7).  A detailed FOIA appeal notwithstanding, the Air Force refused to release the information claiming that it would cause "serious damage to the national security."  This is a preposterous withholding that is truly hard to explain or even understand.  The Air Force has already declassified a detailed account of SAC's DEFCON 2 posture during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so apparently releasing information on DEFCONs is not a matter of principle.  Nor is the fact that the Nixon administration ordered the DEFCON during the October War a strict matter of government secrecy; at the National Archives, Defense Department reviewers have declassified some of JCS Chairman Thomas Moorer's messages during the crisis, which plainly refer to the DEFCON 3 alert and changes in alert status (See Documents 8C, 8D, and 8E above).  Moreover, the State Department has declassified Henry Kissinger's telephone conversation with British Ambassador Cromer, which also refers to the DEFCON 3 alert (See Document 8B, above).  The Pentagon's decision to keep the DEFCON 3 alert in the classified box appears to have no rhyme or reason.

Also withheld from the history are some of the details of SAC reconnaissance operations during the crisis, the GIANT REACH flights by the SR-71. Yet, the SAC history of the flights was declassified years ago (see document F), including details of the missions and the cooperation (or lack of cooperation) of foreign governments in facilitating them. (Note 5)



1.  See U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Volume X (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 2002), at, document 139 (Postures A and B discussed in Section V "Strategic Forces and Damage Limiting").

3.  Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 165-170.

4.   For a helpful account of the White House decision and the controversy, see Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 420-433.  For a more recent account, see Alistair Horne, Kissinger 1973, The Crucial Year (Simon & Shuster, 2009), 294-306.   For press coverage of the DEFCON see, for example, "Military Installations in Area Are Unusually Active in Alert,", and "The 5 Conditions of 'Defense Readiness'; Carriers Were Moved In," The New York Times, 26 October 1973, and "GIs at Ft. Meade Take Alert in Stride," Washington Post, 26 October 1973.

5.  More recently, Dino Brugioni published an account of U.S. aerial reconnaissance activities during the October War; see "The Effect of Aerial and Satellite Imagery on the 1973 Yom Kippur War," Air Power History (Fall 1974), 5-13.