In the short term, however, the security of the nation required some secrecy. Thus, the Tolman Committee concluded that secrecy could be justified for reasons of national security and then only if “there is a likelihood of war within the next five or ten years” (Committee on Declassification to Major General L. R. Groves, 1945). Applying this general philosophy to the question of secrecy in medical research, it recommended that “all reports on medical research and all health studies” be immediately declassified except for those reports that contained information independently classified in the interest of short-term national security (Committee on Declassification to Major General L. R. Groves, 1945).
While the Tolman Committee report generally advocated openness, it also set the precedent for keeping declassification guides secret. The report recommended that “the whole of the Declassification Guide should not, however, be generally distributed since it gives an overall picture of the whole project and makes mention in certain instances of extremely secret matters. The portions of the Declassification Guide needed for the work of anyone concerned with declassification should be made available” (Committee on Declassification to Major General L. R. Groves, 1945). By following this recommendation, the AEC, and later the Department of Energy, would keep from the public the ever-accumulating rules governing weapons-related information. Indeed, the first three declassification guides covering information on nuclear weapons, published in 1946, 1948, and 1950, were declassified only in 1995 (Manhattan Engineer District, 1946; Atomic Energy Commission, 1948, 1950).
In 1946 Congress enacted the Atomic Energy Act, which, in creating the AEC, expressly addressed the protection of atomic energy information. The act provided that all information related to atomic energy was to be considered as Restricted Data (RD) until the AEC reviewed it and decided that it should be unprotected (RD was, therefore, said to be “born secret”). The act prohibited the unauthorized disclosure of RD (making it a capital crime to do so in the course of espionage) and prohibited anyone from receiving access to it without first receiving a security clearance. At the same time, however, the act instructed the AEC not to protect information if the AEC did not consider its disclosure harmful to the national security. Thus, the statute defined RD to mean “all data concerning the manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power, but shall not include any data which the Commission from time to time determines may be published without adversely affecting the common defense and security” (Atomic Energy Act, 1954).
(p. 2), [emphasis added]
When it began operation in 1947, the AEC was heir to two traditions: one in which official secrets could extend beyond national security to matters of prestige and another in which the interest in promoting openness and limiting secrecy to matters of national security was recognized. In public, AEC biomedical officials and advisers advocated the latter policy. In secret they embraced the former and even expanded it to encompass “embarrassment.” Through as late as 1949, the declassification of reports on human experiments involved their review for public relations and legal liability implications. Documents revealing the dual tracks of public policy making and the secret review process did not become public until 1994. Important pieces of the story remain unclear, including the way in which AEC officials and advisers reconciled seemingly contrary principles.