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Declassification at the Pentagon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

August 13, 2020

A recent declassification decision at the Department of Defense, in response to a mandatory declassification review appeal by the National Security Archive, demonstrates that over-classification and silly secrecy are alive and well in certain quarters of the Pentagon. Recently, in response to an appeal to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) filed in 2013 by the National Security Archive for documents from the files of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, NARA released two documents that had previously been denied in their entirety. One of them, processed by Joint Staff reviewers, was massively excised although most of the document’s contents was published decades ago in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series.  The other, which Air Force reviewers had processed, was released in full as it should have been.  Both documents had overlapping contents and the discrepant treatment reveals much about the way that declassification reviews can go badly or well at the Pentagon.  

“Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces, 1963-1967″ – page 1

“Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces, 1963-1967″ – page 4, almost entirely redacted.

The massively excised document was a draft memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy on “Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces, 1963-1967.” dated 23 September 1961.  This was the beginning of the series of draft presidential memoranda (DPMs) on a variety of defense policy issues that McNamara would prepare during his tenure in office. The version released by the Pentagon had most of the text withheld. According to the marking on the many pages that are denied in their entirety, the Joint Staff made the implausible decision to use exemption 5 in Executive Order 13526 -war plans still in effect- to justify the extensive deletions. In addition, Defense Department reviewers used the Atomic Energy Act to withhold some “formerly restricted data”.

The fuller version of the text is available in the FRUS.

As noted, the McNamara DPM has been declassified for years in various releases, including publication in the Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS] in 1996. Readers can see for themselves what the Joint Staff’s reviewers chose to withhold: almost all of the written text, including “Target Destruction Requirements,” “Relationship of Recommended Force to Soviet Forces,” and “Basis for Recommendations on Specific Weapon System Choice”, as well as various tables of targets, “percent expected kill,” etc.

The purpose of the DPM was to delineate and justify the force level of ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers that McNamara believed were enough to retaliate against a Soviet attack and thereby “deny the Soviet Union the prospect of either a military victory or of knocking out the U.S. retaliatory force.” Even if the Soviets struck first, according to McNamara, the U.S., with its higher strategic force levels, would still retain “military superiority.”  Such force levels would be “designed to avoid the extremes of a ‘minimum deterrence’ posture on the one hand, or a ‘full first strike capability’’ on the other.  Minimum deterrence could destroy Soviet cities but would not provide enough forces to destroy Soviet nuclear threat targets, while a first strike capability would be “infeasible”, unlikely to knock out all Soviet ICBMs. and unduly provocative.

Following the DPM’s discussion of the strategic rationale was an analysis of target or “aim point” priorities, 200 urban-industrial systems and 150 bomber bases, which would be most threatening to the U.S.  Other priority targets included nuclear storage sites, defense suppression, and intermediate-range ballistic missile bases threatening NATO allies.  As for the prospective Soviet ICBM force during 1965-67, its size and its basing (e.g., possibility of protected or “hardened” sites) were matters of “considerable uncertainty.”  Also uncertain was “the performance of our forces in striking back after a Soviet attack—uncertainties associated with the weight and effectiveness of possible Soviet attacks, the ability of our forces to survive under attack, the reliability of our missiles, and the ability of our forces to penetrate Soviet defenses.” 

Some of the information withheld from the FRUS release was declassified in a release of the DPM sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. For example, one of the passages in the DPM noted that the calculations of fatalities and material destruction did not include theater nuclear forces “though SIOP ’62 includes about 270 alert aircraft and missiles from these forces.  On the other hand, with the exception of the defense suppression targets, no targets in China or the other satellites were included.” The Defense Department did not “now expect China to develop a significant long range nuclear delivery force in the time period under consideration.”  The references to 270 and China were not included in the FRUS version. That same release included much of Appendix I, “Assumed Operational Factors for 1965 and 1967 Target Damage Calculations.”

Much more could be said about the DPM; plainly it was highly sensitive at the time it was created and for years thereafter. Nevertheless, that most of text could be published in the FRUS and released in another version indicates that as of 1996 or so, security reviewers in the government believed that the DPM had lost most of its sensitivity and was substantially eligible for declassification.  Nevertheless, the Joint Staff thought otherwise. And even though the document is in the collections at the National Archives, it does not have the authority to overrule bad decisions such as this one.

This is not the first time that this writer has raised questions about the flawed declassification work of the Joint Staff.1 The military officers who have responsibility there are on temporary assignments and the default mode has been to keep information classified, lest a “wrong” decision interfere with the reviewer’s career path.  For JS reviewers, declassifying a sixty-year old document could be a threat to national security if it includes any discussion of targets and strategy, even if the document had been substantially released years earlier.  Even if the document is in the possession of the National Archives, as in this case, NARA’s declassification staff is powerless to reject or modify an unreasonable decision by JS reviewers. 

The Air Force memorandum released in this case was declassified in its entirety by that agency’s reviewers. It consists of a memorandum from Secretary of the Air Force Eugene Zuckert to Secretary of Defense McNamara with a memorandum attached by Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay; both commented on the substance of McNamara’s DPM from September 1961.  Yet  Zuckert and LeMay expressed disagreements with McNamara, arguing for the value of a “credible first strike option,” even though a U.S. pre-emption attack on the Soviet Union could have led to “severe” or “substantial” damage to the United States.  Zuckert and LeMay expressed other disagreements; for example, LeMay urged that Soviet command and control facilities be included among the priority targets. Failure to target them could have a “seriously adverse impact upon our ability to reduce damage to the U.S. and its allies.”  

That is exactly the kind of information that the Joint Staff reviewers exempted from McNamara’s DPM. Plainly, the Air Force reviewers did not find it necessary to make the laughable claim that U.S. war plans still in effect should prevent declassification of this nearly 60 year-old document.   Although the Air Force has had a bad reputation for its handling of declassification requests for records at the National Archives, in this case its reviewers did a good job.2

The Joint Staff could learn much from the example provided by Air Force reviewers, if it chose to.  That, however, cannot be counted on.   Major reforms at the Department of Defense are essential.  The U.S. Congress is becoming aware of the problem and in last year’s budget authorization, Congress tasked the Department to produce a plan to improve declassification, especially in reducing backlogs.  That has not yet been done, with the Pentagon informing Congress that the pandemic will delay work on a plan until the end of 2020. Whatever the Defense Department has in mind, it ought to centralize declassification review to ensure that the work is of the highest quality and credibility. The Joint Staff declassification unit should not go on as it has, without additional quality control and more effective supervision. And to reduce backlogs and to put declassification on a more credible basis, the Defense Department should cede to the National Archives authority over declassification review of its documents that are, say, over 40 or 50 years old.  Without such changes, declassification review at the Joint Staff and other offices at the Defense Department will stay on their present bad course.


1.  See William Burr, “Trapped in the Archives, Foreign Affairs https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-11-29/trapped-archives, 29 November 2019.

2. Nicholson Baker, Basesless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act (new York, Penguin Press, 2020), at page 5, citing National Archives official David Fort that the Air Force is the “worst” in responding to declassification requests.

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