A Half Life for Historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD)


Classified information concerning the technical design and manufacture of atomic weapons and the production or use of special nuclear material in the production of energy is categorized as Restricted Data (RD) by the Department of Energy (DOE) under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) is a separate category of information (defined under 10 CFR 1045) concerning the military utilization of atomic weapons as jointly determined by DOE and the Department of Defense (DoD).

FRD includes broad categories related to military utilization, including storage locations, military planning information, stockpile numbers, negotiations with foreign nations concerning nuclear weapons, and testing information.  Unlike information classified by Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” (the Order) or its predecessor orders, RD and FRD information remains classified indefinitely with no distinction between sensitive, current information and innocuous, historical information.

While there is high researcher interest in accessing historical FRD information, much of this information remains needlessly classified.  Weapons systems are decommissioned, as are the military units who maintained them.  War plans become obsolete and are changed to account for advances in weaponry and technology as well as altered to account for changes to current national security policy.  Stockpile and storage locations change over time, and nuclear weapons information is disclosed to other nations as treaties are negotiated and signed.  Despite its operational obsolescence, this historical information remains classified as FRD and is needlessly safeguarded in the same manner as our current active nuclear policies and plans.  As a result, there are large gaps in the public’s understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in our national security history.  Significant Cold War events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, have yet to be fully detailed as most records marked FRD remain locked in classified vaults.

The Problem

For historians, national security policy scholars, and the public, access to this information is integral to understanding our national security history.  Yet, a regular, systematic process to review FRD for declassification and public access does not exist.  FRD has been declassified in a few isolated instances, but these decisions were usually ad hoc and inconsistent.

The public has no formal means of requesting the declassification review of FRD information.  Unlike other categories of classified information, information marked as FRD is automatically excluded from all reviews for declassification under the Order, including 25-year automatic declassification reviews and Mandatory Declassification Review requests.  Agencies are required to process and review records containing FRD under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the FRD information itself is pro forma exempted and not reviewed on its merits.  On those rare occasions when DoD and DOE choose to consider specific FRD information for declassification, there is no mechanism to appeal an exemption/denial decision.


The Public Interest Declassification Board (the Board) recommends that the classification designation FRD be eliminated on all historical records that are 25 years old or older.  These records should be reviewed for declassification in the same manner as all other classified national security information.  Historical FRD information – stockpile numbers, storage locations, military planning information, basic testing and yield information, and non-technical nuclear information as it relates to the military utilization of nuclear weapons – would formally become classified national security information and reviewed for declassification according to the Order.  Agencies could seek exemptions from the automatic declassification provisions of the Order from the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) and exempt this information accordingly.  DOE could participate in ISCAP deliberations as a temporary representative when FRD information is discussed.[1]

Historical FRD information that describes technical design information relating to the military utilization of nuclear weapons would be converted to the RD classification, in effect correcting erroneous FRD markings of the past.   As part of this transition, DoD and DOE would need to create a declassification guide to provide clear and precise instructions on what should properly be classified as RD and what should be classified by the Order as national security information and what should be declassified.  To ensure proper treatment of FRD, this guidance would be disseminated to all agencies that hold historical FRD information in their records.

[1] This is identical to an existing procedure used to provide representation for the CIA when their equities are being adjudicated by ISCAP.


6 thoughts on “A Half Life for Historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD)

  1. Jennifer Sims proposal speaks to a real problem because federal agencies have routinely used the Formerly Restricted Data [FRD] exemption to classify information that should no longer be classified. Given the way in which the secrecy system contains multiple loopholes that entangle information that should be kept secret with larger, historically significant strands of information that should be declassified, it is evident that Professor Sims and PIDB are trying to cut the FRD Gordian Knot. A few examples will demonstrate this problem.
    A recent blog posting on the National Security Archive’s Web site (http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/) highlighted the problem by pointing out that the Atomic Energy Act was cited to protect information about a Vietnam War military incident involving nuclear weapons that have not been deployed on surface ships for years. A recent FOIA release of State Department documents at the National Archives provides another good example of unnecessary secrecy produced by the application of the Atomic Energy Act. The Department of Energy [DOE] excised documents from an early 1960s decimal file on Anglo-American nuclear relations because they included discussions of the deployment of nuclear-tipped Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles [IRBMs] to the United Kingdom. That the U.S. deployed nuclear IRBMs to the UK is a fact of Cold War nuclear history, openly discussed in numerous histories, including official Air Force and Defense Department studies.
    The full impact of the FRD exclusion is evident whenever the Pentagon releases old compendia of U.S. nuclear arrangements (deployments on the ground, ship visits, overflights, etc.) with other governments during the Cold War. One of them, posted at the National Security Archive Web site, goes on for pages and pages http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB197/nd-7.pdf but with massive excisions deleting the names of the countries involved in the arrangements. With the Cold War ending all but a few overseas nuclear deployments and reconfiguring the U.S. Navy so that nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from surface ships, the excised material in this compendium has long been overtaken by events. Nuclear weapons were a central issue in Cold War history, but historians and social scientists cannot fully account for their significance as long as unnecessary secrecy prevails.
    If the U.S. government implemented Professor Sims’ proposal to change the status of historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) it would be an important and positive development. What is particularly important and useful about the proposal is that Professor Sims clearly distinguishes and demarcates information that should remain secret, i.e. weapon design information, and specific derived nuclear weapons technology information that merits continued declassification. This leaves a significant body of historically important information that has to do with the way that military planners and political leaders integrated these weapons into policies, plans and strategies, from weapons budgets and deployments to nuclear war planning. We believe that much of this information is releasable, being of historical interest only and having been overtaken by advances in weapons technology, the US decision to pull nuclear weapons from the field, and vastly different diplomatic and security environments. Thus, declassifying more information on Cold War basing and targeting and the explosive yields and accuracy of weapons no longer deployed should be possible.
    The positive impact that adoption of Professor Sims’ proposal could have is clearly demonstrated if one looks at the impact of the Department of Energy review of archival documents for FRD and RD [restricted data] imposed by the Kyl-Lott amendment. Readers will recall that Kyl-Lott brought to its knees the historical declassification process at the National Archives. The steady opening of archival records that had been a hallmark of the Clinton administration halted when the Department of Energy began impounding formerly open State Department and other archival files to comb them for FRD and RD. The reports produced by DOE on the Kyl-Lott review show that out of 201 million pages reviewed, some 4,300 pages—about 2/3ds of the total withholdings—were withheld on FRD grounds, with many of them concerning historical nuclear weapons deployments. If the system proposed by Professor Sims had been in effect, the impact of the review would have been significantly reduced because the number of documents withheld arguably would have been much smaller. The cost of the review, about $22 million dollars, however, may have been about the same.
    Professor Sims’ proposal to convert historical FRD into national security information is an excellent starting point for solving the problems created by the Atomic Energy Act. Whether the national security bureaucracy would be accepting of such a change or, as may be more likely, whether opponents would even try to block it has to be considered. For example, a statement made in 2010 (http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/awd-frd.pdf) by Andrew Weston-Dawkes, a Department of Energy official, suggests that the DOE security bureaucracy opposes such reform on the grounds that FRD includes not only information on former locations and weapons numbers but also sensitive details about the weapons themselves. According to Weston-Dawkes, converting all FRD to national security information would “put at higher risk this type of information.” This is a doubtful proposition because FRD is held in the same filing systems as national security information and receives the same protection from security officers. As FOIA and mandatory review requesters have learned, no one in the national security bureaucracy declassifies NSI haphazardly (the opposite is often true!) which suggests that the idea of “higher” risk for FRD is exaggerated. No doubt opposition may also come from Congress, where elected representatives may try to score political points by making claims about breaches of nuclear secrecy. As with Adm. Studeman’s recent proposal, a principled and determined exercise of high-level political resolve may be necessary to overcome resistance and inertia.
    Bill Burr and Bob Wampler, The National Security Archive, George Washington University

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with the views of Dr. Weston-Dawkes. We should weigh the opinions of true experts.

    1. We do need to have the perspective of experts. However, we also need common sense and a reality check. A core part of our Cold War history is also needlessly hidden – and at great expense. Government experts have yet to declassify the reasons behind Kennedy’s negotiations with the USSR in solving the Cuban Missile Crisis – why? Because some of those key records are simply marked as “FRD” and are automatically removed from the pile for declassification review. This is wrong. The missle crisis was the critical event in our Cold War history. Yet, our Government is still actively prohibiting the release of this information (despite widespread knowledge here and around the world) of how the crisis was resolved. Is this the best use of scarse resources – to hunt down at great expense and then protect at great expense these needless secrets? It is important to use experts for their expertise – have them help in creating declassification guides that do really detail the information that is still sensitive and should be protected. We do not need experts to simply see an FRD maked document and say – it’s FRD and therefore it says in a vault. We must start to review this information on its merit – for the benefit of our citizens to learn about the past actions of their Government; for our policy makers and Government officials so thy can make better decisions, and for the benefit of the classification system – so that it is worthy of respect (by those using it as well as the public).

  3. The following views are my own and not meant to represent the views of any government or non-government organization.

    I agree that classification officials with the proper authority should reconsider the classification of what is termed here as “historic FRD” pertaining to the overseas locations. However, there is alot more to FRD than that and to sugest an entire category of classified information been done away with is wrong.

    While members of the PIDB certainly have impressive credentials and experience, and while employees of the National Security Archives are well respected historians, nothing in these peoples’ background suggests extensive experience in writing technical classification guidance, or work reviewing documents for classification or declassification specifically for RD or FRD; no background in physics or nuclear engineering or time working at a National Lab… People can make comments about what they think RD or FRD is in board terms but can do little more than speculate beyond that – not surprising since it’s classified. Sorry, but I don’t find the paper by Professor Simms to be credible and perhaps the entire discussion goes outside of the PIDB’s mandate.

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