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Declassification at the Pentagon II: More Silly Secrecy

August 31, 2020

A recent declassification decision by the Department of Defense illustrates the agency’s chronic inability to make wise decisions when reviewing classified historical records. In this decision, Pentagon reviewers denied almost the entirety of a Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum from 1969 that had already been declassified for years. The same document was released in full in 2009 by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP). Unbeknownst to me until recently, the same document that ISCAP had declassified was also in a file at the National Archives for which I requested declassification review in 2011. The file of documents concerned SEAGA (Selective Exercise of Air and Ground Alert), a Strategic Air Command nuclear alert program. In 2015, the National Archives informed me that the Defense Department had denied one of the SEAGA documents in its entirety, which turned out to be the one that ISCAP had declassified.

The DoDs recent release, nearly entirely redacted.

Not knowing what the document was but aware of its subject matter, I appealed the denial in 2015 and a few weeks ago the National Archives informed me that the Defense Department had approved partial release. The copy the Archives sent me was massively excised. When I saw it, I realized that it was the document that ISCAP had declassified in 2009. According to NARA’s letter, the Defense Department had ruled that release of the denied information would harm U.S. diplomatic relations and would also “reveal formally named or numbered U.S. military war plans that remain in effect.” Of course, that is irrelevant because as sensitive as this document was during the Cold War, ISCAP has decided over ten years ago that its release would not cause any harm to U.S. national security.

ISCAP’s 2009 release, entirely unredacted.

The document that ISCAP had fully released concerns the Selective Exercise of Air and Ground Alert, which was a program to raise alert levels of B-52 bombers in a defense emergency. Strategic Air Command and Pentagon planners created SEAGA after a B-52 bomber crashed in January 1968 on Greenland; its nuclear bombs were destroyed and spilled radioactive debris on the ice near Thule Air Base. The bomber had been on airborne alert, which had put nuclear-armed B-52s in the air twenty-four hours a day. With airborne alert terminated, SAC planners wanted contingency plans to raise air and ground alert levels for B-52s in crisis conditions.

If war broke out, the bombers could proceed to strike one of the target sets, probably urban-industrial, in the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the U.S. nuclear war plan. In the event that the U.S. decided to activate SEAGA, the plans envisaged nuclear-armed flights over Canadian territory, which required Ottawa’s consent. The U.S. already had an agreement with Canada allowing nuclear overflights, but it would expire at the end of June 1969 and had to be renewed. It is the information on Canada that Defense Department officials believe would somehow harm U.S. relations with that country.

When I made the request for SEAGA documents, I was interested the role that SEAGA had played in a secret nuclear alert ordered by President Nixon in early October 1969 on which I was co-writing a book with Jeffrey Kimball. Following top-level orders for actions that would be “discernible to the Soviets but should not be threatening, the Pentagon implemented what was officially known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test. Accordingly, as one of a number of aerial, ground, and naval actions that U.S forces secretly took during October 1969, the Defense Department instructed the Strategic Air Command to implement GIANT LANCE, the SEAGA “Show of Force” option. For the first time since the Thule accident, nuclear-armed B-52s would be in the air, in this instance over northern Alaska. Lasting several days in late October 1969, the GIANT LANCE flights were one of the last steps of the secret readiness test. While Nixon hoped that this exercise of the “Madman Theory” would make the Soviets more amenable to helping with the Vietnam negotiations, that was not to be.

In 2015, when I appealed the denial, I suspected that the denied document was about SEAGA. To make my case that the document could be released without harm to national security, my appeal included a number of previously declassified documents on the subject; ironically, one of them was the very item that ISCAP had declassified in 2009. That, however, made absolutely no difference for the handling of the appeal. It’s difficult to know what happened: perhaps the Pentagon decision to keep the JCS memorandum largely classified was more or less a knee-jerk reaction and the ISCAP declassification was not even noticed. Perhaps the Pentagon reviewers believe that the ISCAP decision was mistaken or improper, but their attempt to reclassify is futile. As White House Chief of Staff H.R Haldeman said back in the days of Watergate, “once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s very tough to get it back in.”

This pointless decision demonstrates why the Defense Department needs to change the way that it uses its declassification authority. The Department needs competent reviewers whose first instinct is not to preserve secrecy and who can tell the difference between historical information that should be declassified and information that is still sensitive, and who are aware of what has already been declassified. The Pentagon needs centralized quality control to prevent poor decisions by Defense Department or Joint Staff reviewers from going forward. Moreover, when classified Defense Department records are held at the National Archives, that agency should have a substantive role in the declassification process. NARA reviewers could provide necessary quality control if they had the authority to stop a bad decision from going forward and to require a better outcome. Such a change would probably require an amendment to the executive order on classified information policy or, even better, a change in the law.

This incident is a perfect example of why ISCAP declassification decisions ought to have a far weightier impact than they do. Each ISCAP decision should provide the ground rules or parameters for future declassification decisions on a given topic. When it makes a decision, ISCAP should notify the agencies that basic information on topic X, e.g., SEAGA, is no longer classified. Agencies would be required to observe the decisions. While putting ISCAP in the role of a precedent setter has been discussed for years, it has become more and more necessary. To make that possible would also require a change in the executive order.

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