A Possible Step Forward on Defense Department Declassification

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 18 (HR 2810, sect. 1089) contains a surprising provision that requires the Secretary of Defense to declassify certain classified documents regarding military exposures to toxic releases. Specifically,

The Secretary of Defense shall declassify documents related to any known incident in which not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance.

Of course, there are limitations:

(b) Limitation.–The declassification required by subsection (a) shall be limited to information necessary for an individual who was potentially exposed to a toxic
substance to determine the following:
(1) Whether that individual was exposed to that toxic substance.
(2) The potential severity of the exposure of that individual to that toxic substance.
(3) Any potential health conditions that may have resulted from exposure to that toxic substance.

and a critical exception:

(c) Exception.–The Secretary of Defense is not required to declassify documents under subsection (a) if the Secretary determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States.

This exception appears potentially quite broad, but as Steve Aftergood pointed out in Secrecy News

That is a far more stringent standard than is provided by the executive order on classification, which vaguely permits withholding of information whenever it “could be expected to cause damage to the national security.”

In effect, the Senate bill overrides the executive order with respect to the specified documents on toxic exposures by mandating declassification with new, narrower criteria for withholding.

He further noted that the provision is noteworthy

because it does not simply declare a “sense of Congress” in favor of declassification or call for a “review” of classified records. It actually requires declassification to be performed.

As Aftergood points out, it shows that Congress has the power to help to correct errors and abuses in classification policy.

The provision was authored by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). In a news release, Sen. Moran stated,

Without declassification of these documents, many of our veterans are left without proof of the exposure they suffered, preventing them from being able to establish their service-connected conditions and secure a disability rating that makes them eligible to receive the care and benefits they deserve to help them cope with the residual health damage.

This could, of course, also be said about other situations and actions taken by the US government, such as the previous torture of some of the detainees at Gitmo — which prevents their cases from moving forward in the military commissions.

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