PIDB Congratulates NATO for Declassifying Cold War historical retrospectives of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

The Public Interest Declassification Board congratulates the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its member nations for its work in declassifying the Cold War historical retrospectives of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and posting them on its website.  The histories detail the origins of SHAPE and document its activities and decisions as a consolidated command structure opposing the Communist alliance forming during the Cold War.  Under the orders of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951, historians in SHAPE began to research and draft these classified histories, drawing on the wide range of Top Secret and Secret documents that had been collected and preserved by the SHAPE Historical Office and SHAPE Central Records Office.

These histories also shed important new light on the origins, development, and implementation of NATO’s nuclear weapons policies.  While NATO has taken important steps to declassify its nuclear weapons history, the U.S. effort lags behind.  U.S. nuclear weapons information, including storage locations, is classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) by the Atomic Energy Act.  Under the 1954 Act and its implementing regulations, this information is not subject to automatic declassification and, once classified as FRD, remains classified until such time as the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD) agree to declassify the information.  Although the Cold War ended over a decade ago, DoD and DOE have done little to declassify information on our nuclear weapons history and its role in winning the Cold War.  It is our hope that the Departments of Energy and Defense can learn from NATO’s efforts.

We believe the cooperation and excellent work undertaken by the member nations support our recommendation to the President in our Transforming the Security Classification System report that the Departments of Defense and Energy take steps necessary to allow for the systematic declassification review of obsolete FRD information that would provide citizens and historians new perspective on US Cold War policies.  We believe the declassification of the SHAPE histories can serve as a model for achieving this goal.

4 thoughts on “PIDB Congratulates NATO for Declassifying Cold War historical retrospectives of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

  1. It’s good to see this posting on the SHAPE histories because NATO’s flexible policy on declassifying important facts about historical nuclear deployments ought to be encouraged. PIDB already has an important proposal for declassifying historical information about nuclear deployments and the NATO release is a case study of such an approach in action. It makes perfect sense to take such information out of the Formerly Restricted Data category and to treat it as national security information so it can be declassified on the merits.

  2. I particularly like the PIDB summary’s frank call for NATO’s declassification work to serve as a model for the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to declassify their own obsolete nuclear weapons histories. That is ironic because I thought that NATO tended to be slow in declassifying their own documents.

  3. Thank you for your comment and support for the PIDB’s recommendation on implementing a systematic declassification review process for FRD information. We also want to direct readers to Bill Burr’s post detailing the declassification of the NATO SHAPE histories on the UNREDACTED blog of the National Security Archive. We echo your comment, “With NATO reviewers taking a pragmatic view of these old nuclear secrets, it may not be too much to hope that nuclear information regulators in Washington will someday support changes that will bring some necessary transparency to U.S. nuclear history.”

  4. Declassification of the SHAPE histories also highlights the wisdom of the PIDB’s support for government history programs. GEN Eisenhower’s advocacy of the SHAPE history effort was a direct reflection of his familiarity with and support for the U.S. Army’s history program, just one of the government efforts combining professionally qualified historians with access to the full range of source material at the time. Any value that the SHAPE histories may hold today would simply not exist without the foresight to support such programs six decades ago.

    When tasked to prepare histories using classified information, to evaluate and assemble classified material for eventual declassification, or to inform declassification decisions, objective historical scholars can make great contributions to the public’s knowledge of government activities. Their efforts can take the form of information pre-assembled for eventual declassification such as the SHAPE histories, or, like the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, materials specifically selected for immediate public release ahead of more general declassification. Perhaps most importantly, in either endeavor they identify and assemble or locate significant records to assist other researchers, frequently including a preliminary analysis of the events in question, and thus speed public access to and knowledge of our nation’s history.

    The National Reconnaissance Office’s ongoing struggle to declassify and release much of its Cold War history reflects three aspects of the historian’s craft within the classified world and their benefits. It is no accident that the initial release of records from the GAMBIT-HEXAGON and QUILL programs included both long-prepared program histories and more recent historical products deliberately written to explain what was being declassified. Professional historians also played a key role in developing guidance for those declassifications, and in prioritizing records for declassification review. This has ensured that the public quickly gained a broad overview of the programs in question despite slow progress in the release of additional records and the absence of any subsequent new historical scholarship from within the NRO. Notably, other government history programs have also continued to release related information in advance of more systematic and labor intensive declassification reviews.

    As recommended by Intelligence Community Directive 108 and the PIDB, the Department of Defense and members of the Intelligence Community can make great strides in government openness simply by investing in professionally staffed history programs mandated to advance public knowledge of government activities at the earliest possible date.

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