Disclosure fears threaten to slow files' release

The Energy Department July 31 awarded DynMeridian Corp. a five-year contract potentially worth $6.8 million to build a state-of-the-art computer system to speed declassification of some 280 million pages of Cold War-era documents.

DOE needs the system to cope with the volume of historically important materials in its vaults. In 1995 President Clinton ordered all federal agencies to declassify possibly a trillion pages of World War II documents.

But concern on Capitol Hill and within DOE that national security secrets might slip through could limit the extent to which computers are used to review these documents. A little-noticed provision in the pending Defense authorization bill would require a human reviewer to ensure that no information about nuclear weapons is disclosed.

The language, an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), targets a provision of the executive order that requires agencies to automatically declassify all documents more than 25 years old, even if they have not been reviewed. In a July 28 letter to Samuel ''Sandy'' Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, Kyl, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) complained that officials ''are not taking proper care to ensure'' that nuclear weapons information is not ''co-mingled'' with materials that are scheduled to be disclosed.

According to news reports, Kenneth Baker, deputy director of the DOE Office of Nonproliferation, complained to the Office of Management and Budget last month that sensitive information was included in records held by other agencies that are slated to be declassified.

The Kyl provision does not specifically restrict the use of computer systems in the declassification process. In fact, most of the software that agencies use for this work today is for cataloging, distributing and marking up documents that are read by the public. One common feature of such systems allows electronic ''redaction'' of scanned document images, allowing reviewers to share online their recommendations about passages that should not be made public.

Jeanne Schauble, director of initial processing and declassification with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), said she knows of only one system, a Navy application called Radiant Mercury, that uses artificial intelligence to screen specially formatted messages.

''Certain types of information appear in the same place in every message,'' she said. ''The program can look for those places in the message and remove the sensitive information in that spot.''

Using Commercial Components

Initially, the DOE system would include commercially proven components. Eventually, however, DOE wants to incorporate emerging artificial intelligence technology that would replace humans with software to identify sensitive materials. Brooke Anderson, a DOE spokeswoman, said the research on artificial intelligence for declassification ''is not developed to a point it can be [used] in real-life situations,'' so questions about whether the proposed legislation would restrict its use are ''hypothetical.''

Some advocates for broader document disclosure, both inside and outside the government, disagreed. "We've all talked about artificial intelligence as potentially a way of doing declassification that would enable us to do it within a reasonable cost,'' said Steven Garfinkel, director of the information security oversight office, a part of NARA that monitors agencies' progress complying with the Clinton order. ''Machines don't have eyes,'' he said, so the Kyl amendment appears to undercut such solutions. NARA opposes the amendment, but for reasons other than its perceived effect on deployment of information technology.

Anderson said the bill is not completed, and the administration ''is working to strike the correct balance to protect sensitive information and at the same time let information that should be in the public domain be declassified as quickly as possible.'' Legislation is not necessary, she said, although Kyl's amendment resembles language apparently drafted by someone at DOE.

Calls to Kyl's office Thursday and Friday were not returned.

Details about the system DynMeridian plans to build were unavailable from DOE at press time, and DynMeridian executives could not be reached for comment.

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