A Decision to Declare an Already-Public History Secret is Bad for the PublicBreaking News
tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, Able Archer, secrecy
There are good reasons for the government to keep secrets, such as protecting sources and methods in intelligence work. Yet it is critical to maintain public confidence in the process. Keeping secrets is a form of “trust us.” An Oct. 4 ruling by U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg undermines that trust. The ruling protects the secrecy of an entire document even though it was already made public — by the government.
In February 2021, the State Department released a volume in the Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS, concerning U.S.-Soviet relations from January 1983 through March 1985. This was an important period in the Cold War, during which President Ronald Reagan accused the Soviet Union of being an “evil empire” and Soviet leaders were rattled by a NATO nuclear weapons command exercise, “Able Archer 83.”
Although it was known that the Soviet leadership experienced a “war scare” in the fall of 1983, the FRUS volume revealed a heightened, round-the-clock Soviet alert in the fighter-bomber divisions of forces stationed in East Germany and Poland. They were ordered to load nuclear bombs on one squadron of aircraft in each regiment, and aircraft were placed at “readiness 3,” meaning a 30-minute alert.
Among the disclosures is a retrospective memo from Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, who served as assistant chief of staff for intelligence, U.S. Air Forces Europe, during the 1983 exercise, and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 to 1989. At the end of his DIA tour, he wrote the memo to record his disquiet over what had happened. In the FRUS volume, the text of his memo was published for the first time, with only slight redactions.
The National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group at George Washington University that has used the Freedom of Information Act to explore government decision-making, sought the original of Gen. Perroots’s memo in a FOIA lawsuit, saying the memo was already public in the official history. The CIA released a cover letter but insisted the original must remain secret in its entirety, saying disclosure could “reveal specific intelligence activities, sources, and methods that are either still actively in use or which remain viable for use today.”