Will O'Leary Legacy Last?
Journal Article, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, volume 54, issue 2, pages 11-14
Author: Jennifer Weeks, Former Executive Director and Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom/Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, 1997-2001
Will O'Leary Legacy Last?
by Jennifer Weeks
Bureaucracies are allergic to change. As President Kennedy once put it, "Government departments are like icebergs." Breaking this pattern, the Energy Department has launched a fundamental and long overdue overhaul of its culture and operating practices. The goal: opening up one of the most secretive and inaccessible agencies of the U.S. government.
The shift began in December 1993, when then-Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced a wide-ranging "openness initiative" to promote access to nuclear information. Now in its fifth year, this effort has generated releases of important nuclear data and triggered major changes in Energy's practices for classifying and managing documents. But actions to date only scratch the surface, and further progress will not come easily.
O'Leary took office in 1993 as part of an administration with an oft-proclaimed commitment to shrinking the federal government and making it more responsive to the public. She quickly recognized that despite some tentative steps by her predecessor, James Watkins, to increase public trust in the department, agency credibility was near zero.
Against internal opposition, O'Leary began loosening Energy's tight control over nuclear-related information. Major steps included:
- Holding a series of press conferences to release previously classified information on unannounced nuclear tests, inventories of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, Cold War-era radiation experiments on human subjects, and other topics.
- Requesting guidance on declassification from the National Academy of Sciences, and organizing a broad review of Energy's classification policies and procedures.
- Changing Energy's Office of Classification to the Office of Declassification, and accelerating document declassification.
- Developing a rule to formally regulate the department's classification and declassification decisions.
- Creating an Openness Advisory Panel.
Many of these measures built on the work of others. Public-interest advocates had been lobbying for years to open up the nuclear weapons complex to greater scrutiny. As early as 1985, a Reagan-era task force had noted that "one of the national security responsibilities of [Energy Department] leadership is to make available sufficient information to allow informed public debate on nuclear weapon issues."
A review of classification issues conducted during Watkins's tenure recommended reassessing policies for classifying all nuclear weapon-related information. And in 1991, a coalition of historians, political scientists, and scholars pointed out flaws in Energy's handling of historical records, including over-classification and the failure to transfer records more than 30 years old to the National Archives, a general though not universal governmental practice.
O'Leary made openness actions a symbol of fundamental change at the department. In 1993 she promised to "lift the veil of Cold War secrecy" that had surrounded much of Energy's work; by 1997, Energy was regularly declaring that openness was "The Way to Do Business." And at a press conference on December 22, O'Leary's successor, Federico PeÃ±a, moved the openness initiative further ahead by releasing new information and announcing several long-anticipated actions. "We are," he said, "serious about our commitment."
Moving a paper mountain
The scale of the mission is massive. Energy Department records total about 6.75 billion pages. While only about five percent of this material is classified, the agency has meager knowledge of the contents and locations of many of its unclassified records.
Some 15 percent of Energy's records are held at agency headquarters and field offices. Another 65 percent are at the national laboratories and the remaining 20 percent are at other facilities, such as contractor offices. Significantly, there is no physical center for declassification and no line item in Energy's budget for declassification and document-management activities.
From 1994 to 1996, Energy reviewed for declassification, or confirmed as unclassified, more than 11 million pages of documents. It also generated roughly 2.6 million new classified pages. That was progress. Before 1993, the agency classified more documents each year than it declassified.
But Energy's classified holdings still total about 280 million pages. The National Academy of Sciences recently estimated that it would take nearly 9,000 person-years of effort to review this backlog. Declassification is labor-intensive and requires special training. One goal of the openness initiative was to increase Energy's declassification work force, but that was wishful thinking in an era of budget cuts. The current declassification staff is 87, smaller than in 1993, when it was about 130.
Changing the rules
In December, the Energy and Defense Departments announced they would jointly carry out the recommendations of the Fundamental Classification Policy Review. This study, two years in the making, involved some 60 technical and policy experts from the nuclear weapons complex and other agencies. It called for more than 300 changes to classification policy, most notably, eliminating the "born classified" principle.
Under the Atomic Energy Act, data related to nuclear weapons is treated separately from other classified information. The main type, Restricted Data, concerns design, manufacture, or utilization of atomic weapons, production of uranium and plutonium, and the use of these materials to produce energy. Restricted Data has historically been considered "born classified"— automatically classified from the moment anyone thinks of it or creates a document containing it.
The Fundamental Classification Policy Review recommended requiring an affirmative decision to classify information as Restricted Data.
The review also called for restricting use of the ironically-named category of' Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information (UCNI), which includes information whose release could promote illegal nuclear weapons production, theft of nuclear equipment or materials, or sabotage of nuclear facilities. While UCNI is not classified, it can only be shared with certain categories of U.S. citizens who have a "need to know."
The review panel found that UCNI documents could be reduced by 80 percent by using this designation only for information about safeguards and physical security of nuclear facilities.
PeÃ±a also released a new Energy Department regulation on classification that for the first time codifies the agency's information-handling guidelines. The rule spells out criteria for making classification and declassification decisions based on reasonable risk management (balancing the benefits of openness against the imperatives of protecting sensitive information) rather than a total risk-avoidance policy of controlling any document whose release might damage national security.
The measure requires periodic review of documents containing Restricted Data for declassification, and it forbids classification of information that deals solely with the environment, safety, and health issues. Where possible, it calls for segregating classified information into an appendix, so that the main portion of the document can be publicly released.
Both the Fundamental Classification Policy Review and the new rule on classification departed from past agency practice by requesting and responding to public input. The Moynihan Commission, a panel established to study government secrecy issues, endorsed the classification review as "a model mechanism other agencies could adopt." The classification rule was spurred by public interest groups who urged Energy to use the federal rulemaking process, which calls for notices and public comment, instead of simply issuing internal directives.
The 12-member Openness Advisory Panel also played an important role in formulating Energy's new policies. In a report issued last August, it commended the department for making "very significant strides." But it also observed that Energy faces a major challenge as it works to institutionalize openness throughout the agency in the face of budget cuts. The report identified three broad priorities:
- The panel recommended narrowing the scope for classification while improving protection of truly sensitive records. It endorsed the Fundamental Classification Policy Review's recommendations and the new rule on classification, and it urged the greater use of technology to speed declassification.
- To promote access to unclassified records, the panel called for improving document controls and record management. It stressed the importance of using advanced technologies to accelerate the process, and it highlighted an emerging problem: the storage of and access to electronic records, such as email and databases. While these sources often have great historical value, the panel warned that the federal government lacked a strategy for storing, preserving, and retrieving electronic information.
- The panel emphasized the importance of reversing Energy's long-engrained mindset that agency activities should be hidden from public view. It called for establishing openness as a core departmental value by factoring it into performance reviews, work plans, and contracting activities. The panel also called for agency leaders to champion the issue.
"They are way behind the curve," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "[The Energy Department] faces an enormous logistical challenge that it seems ill-equipped to handle." To accelerate the process, Aftergood recommends granting declassification authority to reviewers at the National Archives.
Progress has also been slow in improving access to Energy's non-classified records. Without adequate "finding aids" to locate specific documents, neither the public nor the agency itself can readily identify and locate information. The Openness Advisory Panel compared Energy's existing document controls to a grocery store inventory, which "could reveal that the store has 10,000 cans of soup, but would not tell you where to find a specific can of Campbell's soup."
In a notable exception, Energy's Office of Human Radiation Experiments has placed finding aids to records from a range of agency sites on its Web page and in public reading rooms. The Openness Advisory Panel urged the department to do the same on other subjects. "Energy could be a model for the government," says Ellyn Weiss, a member of the Openness Advisory Panel, who directed the agency's efforts in 1994-95 to find, declassify, and release records related to human radiation experiments.
Weiss suggests creating a small task force to retrieve documents on historically important subjects and place them on the Web, along with optical character recognition technology, so that information-seekers could look through agency records on a self-serve basis (OpenNet, Energy's online database of declassified documents, contains abstracts and the location of specific records but not the full text of the documents; it can be found at www.doe.gov/html/osti/opennet/opennetl.html).
Energy has taken steps to incorporate openness into its institutional culture. The department's latest strategic plan, released in September, created a "corporate management" goal that stresses openness and public accountability. And in October, Energy amended its classification contract clause to require contractors to systematically review documents for declassification.
But change has been uneven. Some parts of the department have embraced the new priorities; others have not. In a speech last June, then-Assistant Secretary Roger Anders noted that several sites had resisted releasing finding aids for their holdings on radiation experiments to the public— or even to department headquarters.
Priscilla McMillan, a fellow at Harvard University's Russian Research Center and organizer of the 1991 historians' letter to Watkins, says that the success of nuclear document requests varies widely from site to site: "You become more fatalistic as you type out each letter. You're never expecting the millennium, but you have to keep them coming, because you never know which one might hit."
The strength of old habits was sharply demonstrated in September when Energy rejected a congressional request to release the unedited version of Glenn Seaborg's journals from his years as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971. Seaborg, a Nobel laureate and the co-discoverer of plutonium, had his journal cleared when he left office, but Energy seized it in the 1980s and partly or fully excised roughly a thousand sections.
Further progress in opening up the Energy Department depends on many factors, especially funding, congressional politics, executive branch leadership, and public pressure.
Declassification and document management are generally funded from each site's operating budget. Thus, as the Openness Advisory Panel noted, every classification and document management directive amounts to an "unfunded mandate" on field offices.
Moreover, Energy's overhead accounts are a prime target for congressional budget cuts. As nuclear analyst Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council observes, "This is always a place where they take the knife out first when they want to save more important things, like stockpile stewardship." Sixteen declassification reviewers were laid off in fiscal 1996, and Congress directed Energy to make further reductions this year.
These cuts are shortsighted, because openness saves money. Maintaining classified records generates costs for training, document management, and physical security. In 1996, those activities cost Energy roughly $96 million. Inadequate records inventories increase the time required to find documents for litigation, Freedom of Information Act requests, or other demands, driving up the cost of searches.
In addition to scrimping on funds, conservative members of Congress will likely cast a harsh eye on proposals such as amending the Atomic Energy Act to reduce classification. Many of O'Leary's critics on Capitol Hill charged that she had staffed the department with anti-nuclear activists, and they are suspicious of agency policies that they fear will undermine U. S. nuclear dominance— such as providing greater access to nuclear weapon-related information.
Leadership will be essential to overcome these hurdles. However, the Clinton administration has paid little high-level attention to Energy's openness efforts. As a result, much of the responsibility for promoting openness will fall on the diffuse community of "stakeholders"— historians, arms control and environmental groups, journalists, scientists, citizens who live near weapons production sites, and advocates of open government— who have an interest in seeing the effort succeed.
Ultimately, self-preservation could be the key to success or failure of the openness initiative. The Clinton administration and Congress have both considered breaking up the Energy Department and transferring its functions to other agencies. Agency credibility, or lack thereof, has been a factor in these threats. A 1997 Energy report on openness activities put the issue starkly: ". . . unless the DOE [can] operate in an environment of trust and fruitful dialogue with its stakeholders, the essential missions of the department [are] in jeopardy either of being terminated outright or of being diminished in effectiveness to the point of abandonment."
The Energy Department remains whole— for now. But in a time of falling trust in government, debate over U.S. nuclear policy, and balanced-budget politics, Energy leaders cannot afford to be complacent. If the agency cannot make openness "the way to do business," and if its public credibility erodes further, it could find itself out of business.
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